Do elephants have teeth? their dentition and tusks explained
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Elephants are one of the largest animals on Earth, so it's only natural that you'd expect their teeth to be huge, too. But, you can't see the elephants just by looking at them! At first glance they appear to have no teeth, except for their huge tusks. So, do elephants have teeth?
Also, how many teeth does an elephant have? What do they look like, and how big (or small) are they? Let's take a closer look at elephant teeth!
What kind of teeth does an elephant have?
The main factor determining the shape, number and size of an animal's teeth is its diet. After all, animals need specific kinds of teeth to eat different types of food. Flat teeth like molars are best for grinding vegetation, while sharp teeth like canines are best for tearing flesh and meat.
Elephants are completely herbivorous, except for the occasional insect or bird egg that they accidentally swallow while munching on large amounts of vegetation. Given this information, it's no surprise that today's elephants have only molars and premolars (except for their tusks, which are actually modified incisors — more on that later!).
These molars grow in the back of the elephant's mouth, rather than in the upper and lower jaws like human teeth. Needless to say, their molars and premolars are huge! Each tooth is roughly the size and shape of a brick and weighs about 4.5 pounds.
Elephants also have textured ridges on their molars that help break down plant material further. The molar ridges of African elephants are diamond-shaped, while those of Asian elephants are mostly cylindrical.
How many teeth does an elephant have?
In total, African and Asian elephants have 26 teeth at any one time. Twelve of their teeth are wide, flat molars, and 12 are slightly narrower, more pointed premolars. The remaining two teeth are actually their ivory!
A newborn baby elephant has only baby teeth and four small molars. Baby teeth are called "baby tusks" and are replaced by adult teeth when elephants are about two years old. Molars are also replaced by adults of about the same age.
Elephant's teeth are constantly worn away by the abundance of leaves, grass, fruit and twigs, and these gentle giants must eat for around 16 to 20 hours a day to stay energetic. As a result, new teeth always grow to replace the old ones. Whenever a molar or premolar wears out or falls out, a new molar grows from behind and takes its place.
Elephants lose six sets of teeth during their lifetime as a result of this process. There are about 150 teeth!
Is ivory really a tooth?
As we briefly mentioned earlier, ivory is actually teeth! These are enlarged incisors that help elephants tear off bark and branches, dig holes for water, lift and move heavy objects for food, and even protect themselves from predators.
Additionally, male elephants tend to have larger tusks, which they often use to intimidate competing males during mating season. They even use their tusks to compete with other males for territory and food.
Interestingly, while elephants don't necessarily need ivory to survive, without it they are much weaker and more susceptible to various dangers. Curiously, some female African elephants in Mozambique have recently begun to rapidly evolve to be completely tuskless from birth! The researchers believe this trait is a defense mechanism designed to protect elephants from excessive ivory poaching in the region.
Do elephants have no teeth?
An elephant's teeth grow continuously throughout its life — in a way. Once an elephant grows all six sets of teeth, their places don't grow back.
For most elephants, that's usually enough to last them a long life. However, tooth loss is the leading cause of death for elephants over the age of 60-70. Without molars, elephants cannot properly chew and break down their food. So, in some cases, six sets of teeth are not enough.
In addition, elephants have only one pair of tusks in their lifetime. While ivory is constantly growing, they are susceptible to various damages from heavy use over time. If its tusks are damaged or removed by poachers, the elephant becomes more vulnerable to predators and far less efficient at obtaining the large amounts of plant matter it needs to survive.
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Hailey Pruett is a non-binary content writer, editor, and lifelong animal lover living in East Tennessee. They grew up on a hobby farm and owned and cared for a variety of animals, from the mundane (dogs, cats) to the more exotic and unusual (lizards, frogs, goats, llamas, chickens, and more!). When they're not busy writing about how awesome reptiles and amphibians are, they're usually playing arcane indie video games, collecting Squishmallows, or hanging out with their cat, Hugo. Their favorite animals are bearded dragons, salamanders and marine iguanas.
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