Incredible elephants: 15 fascinating facts

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Recently we’ve been doing lots of research into elephant conservation to ensure that we only offer our customers experiences that protect the welfare of these wonderful animals. So far we’ve covered the basic needs of elephants, the many issues surrounding elephant tourism, and the various elephant activities available for tourists – you can read about this in part one and part two.

Today, in the final part of our elephant series, I’ll be looking at just why elephants are so amazing – and why we should be doing everything we can to protect them. How many of these facts did you know?

1.

African and Asian elephants are two distinct species, and probably diverged from each other around three million years ago (in the mid-Pliocene era). This means that they cannot interbreed, and have many different physical and behavioural characteristics. In fact, Asian and African elephants are as closely related to woolly mammoths as they are to each other.

Image: Thomsonsafaris.com
Image: Thomsonsafaris.com

2.

The closest living relative of the elephant is, somewhat surprisingly, the manatee.

Sea elephant?
Sea elephant?

3.

The trunk (or proboscis) is an amazing piece of kit. It’s an extension of the nose and upper lip, containing no bones and up to 150,000 muscle fascicles – making it incredibly dextrous. It can hold up to 8.5 litres of water, lift loads of up to 350kg, crack a peanut shell without breaking the seed, and act as a snorkel when the elephant is underwater.

4.

Elephant skin is very tough and thick, but surprisingly sensitive; an elephant can react to the touch of a feather on its hide, and touching each other gently is a very important part of social bonding.

Image: Phg.dk
Image: Phg.dk

5.

Elephants don’t have fantastic eyesight, but they have an excellent sense of smell – as many as four times as good as that of a bloodhound. They can also communicate using infrasound (sound waves below the frequency audible to humans) and seismic communication (vibrations through the ground).

6.

Elephants are excellent swimmers, and have been recorded swimming distances of up to 50 kilometres and for periods as long as six hours – without touching the bottom!

Elephants are fantastic swimmers
Elephants are fantastic swimmers

7.

Elephant family groups are among the most close-knit of any animal society, and are generally only separated by death or capture. Females live in matrilineal groups with one leader, while males live either alone or with other males. Male Africans can live in large groups (the largest recorded was 144), while male Asians tend to prefer solitude (their largest recorded group was seven).

Elephants form extremely close social bonds
Elephants form extremely close social bonds

8.

Elephants can’t trot, jump, or gallop – and although they can do something that looks like a run (see below), it doesn’t technically count because there’s no “aerial phase”. They can still move pretty fast though!

9.

Like right- or left-handed humans, elephants are usually right- or left-tusked – and the dominant tusk is called the “master tusk”.

10.

Both male and female African elephants grow tusks that can reach lengths of up to 3 metres (10 feet)! Asian elephants are slightly different – their tusks are shorter, and females often have very short tusks or none at all.

Asian elephant in Burma
Asian elephant in Burma

11.

Ivory has been valued since ancient times, and has been used in art, religious carvings, ornaments and much more since as far back as the Greek and Roman civilisations. Though it is illegal today, the ivory trade persists – and over 105 tonnes of ivory was confiscated and burnt at a single event in Kenya this year.

12.

Elephants have long lifespans – they can live for around 70 years. Old elephants can be identified by their sunken temples. The oldest known elephant was Lin Wang, who belonged to the Taiwanese Army and lived to be 86!

The oldest known elephant
Lin Wang: the oldest known elephant

13.

Elephants are one of the world’s most intelligent animals, and one of only four animals in the world that are thought to exhibit self-awareness. The others are great apes, bottlenose dolphins, and Eurasian magpies. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.

I think, therefore I am
I think, therefore I am

14.

Elephants are the only species of mammal other than humans to have a discernible death ritual: they “bury” their dead with dirt and leaves, stand vigil over the “graves” of their loved ones for many hours, and family groups may never regain their structure after the death of a matriarch.

15.

Elephants are thought by many to be natural altruists, and there are stories from all over the world about them going out of their way to avoid harming other elephants, animals, and even humans.

... but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), elephants can't fly.
… but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), elephants can’t fly.

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