A-z - Animals


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Elephants are the largest land animals in the world.

These colossal giants exhibit a variety of complex behaviors that mirror our own in some ways, but are quite different from them in others. This makes them the subject of rigorous behavioral, anatomical, and cognitive studies, and a source of continuing fascination in human culture, especially in Indian, Sumatran, and some African myths and stories. But after decades of poaching and habitat loss, elephants are at risk and could be heading toward extinction unless more is done to protect them.

5 Unbelievable Elephant Facts!

  • Elephants are one of the smartest animals on earth. It is one of the few species that exhibits actual self-awareness and self-knowledge. It appears to use tools such as fly swatters. And it has an excellent ability to learn and remember details. Scientists are still debating whether elephants mourn their dead, but the creatures do seem capable of experiencing deep emotions.
  • Elephants make a low rumble that can be heard up to 5 miles away.
  • The word pachyderm is derived from the Greek pachydermos, meaning "thick skin," and refers to any mammal with a particularly tough coat, including rhinos, elephants and hippos. None of these animals are closely related, though.
  • Weighing up to 7 tons, an elephant is one of the strongest animals in the world. Learn about the world's strongest animals here.
  • Scientists once thought there were 26 million elephants in Africa alone. Today, the world's elephant population is estimated at less than 500,000.

If you're looking for more information on these amazing animals, be sure to read our "10 Incredible Elephant Facts" page!


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scientific name

Elephants on the background of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya National Park, Africa
There are two main types of elephants: African elephants and Asian elephants

© Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock.com

The scientific name of the elephant family is Elephantidae. This family has two living genera. The genus Loxodonta contains two species: the African bush elephant and the African forest elephant. The genus Elephant contains only one extant species: the Asian elephant, which itself can be further divided into several different subspecies, including the Indian, Sumatran, Borneo and Sri Lankan elephants. The fossil record contains many more species, including woolly mammoths that walked the Earth during the last ice age.


  • African forest elephant (Loxodanta cyclotis): The bulky herbivore was slightly smaller than its savannah cousin, with rounder ears, straighter tusks and more toenails. It roams the forests of southern and central Africa.
  • African bush elephant (Loxodanta africana africana): These giant mammals can weigh up to 12,000 pounds and roam the savannahs of West, Central, East and Southern Africa.
  • Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis): The smallest of all Asian elephants, this mammal evolved separately from all its Bornean relatives and is known for having straighter-than-usual tusks and an averagely longer tail.
  • Indian Elephants (Elephas maximus indicus): These elephants have stomachs in proportion to their size, and their females may sometimes have small tusks. They are also darker than their Sumatran counterparts, but lighter than their Sri Lankan counterparts.
  • Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus): The largest of the three subspecies, these giants are also the darkest. Like Indian elephants, they have 19 pairs of ribs.
  • Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus): These herbivores are the lightest Asian elephants, with 20 pairs of ribs. They also have the least amount of discoloration of all three subspecies.


An elephant's trunk is so flexible and strong that it can contain as many as 150,000 muscle fibers

©Andy Elliott/Shutterstock.com

Elephants are not like other animals on earth. They are characterized by huge bodies, thick legs, slender tails, round ears, strong trunks, and some elephants also have tusks. These tusks, which run throughout an elephant's life, are actually just incisors; they allow elephants to dig for food and water, defend themselves and lift heavy objects with ease. Four molars, each about the size of a brick, also line the mouth. Another important aspect of elephant anatomy is the thick, wrinkled skin, which can retain about 10 times as much water as smooth skin.

Their food is also a unique adaptation that gives elephants the best hearing of any animal on Earth. On average, an elephant can hear another elephant up to 2.5 miles away!

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The most important thing that defines an elephant is its size. These impressive creatures stood about 10 feet tall, 18 to 24 feet long, and weighed between 4 and 8 tons. The largest specimen ever recorded was 13 feet tall and weighed 12 tons. Most of the skeletal structure is taken up by the massive skull, which supports the large ears, tusks, and torso. The skull contains large cavities that allow for weight loss without loss of strength. Among other physical differences, Asian elephants differ from African elephants in that they are smaller and have less opportunity for tusks. The Bornean elephant is the smallest subspecies. It is sometimes called the pygmy elephant for this exact reason. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan elephants seem to be the least likely of all species/subspecies to grow tusks from their skulls.


Actually derived from the fusion of the nose and upper lip, the elephant trunk is an impressive instrument with many useful functions related to touch, smell and communication. The tip of the elephant's trunk has finger-like protrusions (Asian elephants have one, African elephants have two), which allow it to grasp objects as small as a straw. The torso contains approximately 150,000 individual muscle fibers, has no bone or cartilage, and very little fat. This allows it to perform very fine movements, which somewhat belies the elephant's rather bulky appearance.


The large, round ears appear to be a very effective organ for keeping elephants cool. The size of ears is a function of the number of blood vessels they contain. This allows a lot of warm blood to flow through the capillaries and release excess body heat to the environment. This effect is amplified when the elephants slap their ears.


The woolly mammoth actually has a living relative today: the Asian elephant

© Prada Brown/Shutterstock.com

Before elephants came along, during the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene epochs, in what is now Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas, there were tusk-jawed herbivores that ate plants.

By the early Pleistocene, they became extinct. But they have given rise to elephants. About 5 million years ago, as the Miocene evolved into the Pliocene, Loxodonta emerged. They were followed by elephants and mammoths .

Of the three lineages, ivory remained in Africa, while mammoths expanded into Eurasia . Elephants not only extended to Eurasia, but even as far as North America.

During the Pleistocene, elephants also evolved the ancestor of the Asian elephant, the flatheaded elephant , and the mammoth evolved Mammuthus primigenius , commonly known as the woolly mammoth. Fun fact: The Asian elephant is actually the closest living relative of this hairy pachyderm that went extinct 4,000 years ago.

Over time, these creatures developed into the much-loved, hulking mammals we know today. As their diet changed, their teeth changed size, and their upper second incisors became eruptions.

Their necks became shorter to provide greater support for their enlarged heads. This meant their torsos had to be lengthened to compensate for their necks.

The results of it? Largest land mammal in Africa and Asia.


Elephants in Murchison Falls NP
Elephants can communicate with each other using their trunks

© Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

The social life of many elephants revolves around herds and small groups. Consisting mostly of closely related cows and their calves, elephant herds are led by a matriarch who helps the group find food and water, avoid predators and find shelter. The eldest daughter is almost always prepared to inherit the matrilineal position upon the death of the mother. A typical herd consists of about 10 individuals. If the herd grows too large, some elephants may split off and form a new semi-independent group. Male bulls, on the other hand, either roam alone or form singleton groups with a specific hierarchy of dominance. Males are more likely to congregate when resources are scarce or threatened. They only come into contact with females when they want to mate.

Elephants have a variety of ways to communicate with each other. The trunk seems to play a vital role in this. The raised trunk seems to be a greeting. Lower-ranking members of the herd would also place its tip in the mouth of a higher-ranking individual, perhaps as a gesture of conciliation. Despite their signature horn calls, many of the noises elephants make to communicate over long distances are actually too low for human ears to detect. They also make gurgling noises from their stomachs, which seems to signal to others that they are okay.

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Depending on food availability, elephants may spend up to 18 hours a day eating. The rest of the time is spent sleeping, showering, cleaning yourself, and bonding with the rest of the team. Playing and fighting are an integral part of their behaviour. They tend to playfully quarrel with other elephants of similar age.

In the wild, elephants only sleep about two hours a day and prefer to sleep standing up. In captivity, elephants sleep close to 6 hours a night and don't have to worry about predators lying down to sleep.


elephant charging
Elephants once lived in the Middle East and East Asia

©Stu Porter/Shutterstock.com

Elephants inhabit savannas, deserts, swamps and forests near rivers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Elephants in India, Sumatra, Borneo, and Sri Lanka generally correspond to these specific geographic regions. But that range is actually narrowed from its largest historical range. For example, Asian elephants once had a larger range between Syria and China. African forest elephants are now reduced to a small patch of land in the Congo Basin of West Africa.


Elephants are herbivorous mammals whose only source of nutrition is vegetation. It needs a lot of food to sustain itself. A typical person consumes as much as 330 pounds of food in a day, although as much as half of this may pass through the body without being properly digested.

what do elephants eat

Elephants can eat almost any type of plant, including grasses, leaves, fruit, twigs, roots, and bark. The exact composition of its diet tends to vary by location and season. Herbivores typically have two distinct strategies for obtaining food: browsing, in which they selectively feed on above-ground shrubs and trees, and grazing, in which they lightly feed on above-ground vegetation. Many elephants are both dry season browsers and wet season herbivores. African forest elephants are primarily browsers, but also have a lot of fruit in the mix.

(No, in case you were wondering, elephants don't eat peanuts!)

Predators and Threats

pride of lion in grass
Lions are one of the biggest threats to baby elephants

©Riaan van den Berg/Shutterstock.com

In addition to natural predators, the animals are also threatened by poaching (due to the value of their ivory), habitat loss, and growing conflict with humans. Some of these threats are amplifying each other. As human encroachment on wild territories reduces the animal's natural habitat, it comes into contact with cultivated land and settlements, which can lead to trampled crops and property damage. This in turn may cause people to retaliate against them.

what do elephants eat

An adult elephant faces no constant threat in the wild. Its huge size and thick hide make it almost invulnerable to attack. However, a young calf can be vulnerable to hyenas, lions, tigers, leopards, and African wild dogs, so it will seek the protection of a pack.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

Young elephants play, the youngest clutching the tails of its siblings
Depending on sex, elephants may remain bonded to their mothers for life

©Johan W. Elzenga/Shutterstock.com

When they reach sexual maturity, male bulls undergo a cyclical transition called musth, in which their testosterone levels soar up to 10 times their normal level. It is characterized by aggressive behavior, enlarged temporal glands behind the eyes, and constant dripping of urine while walking. The musth is designed to advertise the bull's condition and size to females who may be looking for a mate and males who may be looking for competitors. Males in mustards have been known to fight each other, but rarely to death. Females also signal their readiness to mate in various secretions. A male can have multiple female partners in his lifetime.

After mating, a female carries a calf for about 22 months, longer than any other mammal. Babies can stand and walk within an hour of birth. However, it still requires the protection and care of the entire herd. If an adult animal senses danger, it will sound a loud horn. The herd will then form a protective ring around the calf, facing outward to deter predators. While the female herd may be the doting caretaker, the father plays almost no role in the actual development of the offspring.

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It takes a long time for babies to grasp the nuances of elephant life. During the 13 to 20 years it takes to reach full maturity, these animals need to develop coordination, learn social nuances, and form bonds. It has been suggested that improperly raised elephants may exhibit some antisocial behaviour. Meanwhile, it takes a full five or six years for babies to be fully weaned. During the first year alone, calves gain 2 to 3 pounds per day. When fully grown, females tend to stay in the group, while males tend to leave and carve out their own paths in life. They can easily live over 50 years in the wild.

The oldest elephant ever recorded was 88 or 89 years old and was kept in captivity in India. Indian elephants tend to live longer than African elephants.


Fewer than 500,000 elephants of these two species remain in the wild

©Pooja Prasanth/Shutterstock.com

Both the African bush elephant and forest elephant are considered vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List, which publishes lists of threatened species. Only about 415,000 are left in the wild. That's about a 90% drop since the early 20th century. The situation is even worse for Asian elephants. With only about 45,000 left, its population is highly fragmented and is currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Environmentalists are focusing their efforts on habitat protection and the end of poaching. Poaching rates did drop temporarily after a 1989 international agreement banning the ivory trade. China's ban on its domestic ivory market in 2018 further fueled the trend. Conservation groups are also working with local people to reduce negative interactions and create elephant corridors and safe places for elephants to roam. However, elephant populations take time to replenish due to low birth rates and long maturation times.

elephant in the zoo

Due to their food and space requirements, only a few zoos are privileged enough to house these animals. The San Diego Zoo has a unique area called the Elephant Odyssey Habitat that houses both African and Asian elephants. These animals also exist at the Indianapolis Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Seneca Park Zoo, North Carolina Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta.

similar animals

  • Asian Elephants: Consisting of different subspecies, these elephants are smaller than their African relatives. Find out who they're really related to and the key differences between them and their cousins across the ocean.
  • African Forest Elephants: Roaming the dense, dense forests, they can outrun their larger relatives with ease. But what other differences set them apart from their African cousins? Find it here.
  • African Bush Elephant: These giant mammals are very gregarious and social, and love to roam the open savannah. Find out everything you need to know about the largest land mammal on Earth.

See all 116 animals that start with E

Elephants are herbivores, which means they eat plants.

Elephants belong to the animal kingdom.

Elephants belong to the mammal class.

Elephants belong to the phylum Chordate.

Elephants belong to the elephant family.

Elephants belong to the order Proboscis.

Elephants are covered with tough skin.

Elephants live in tropical rainforests and floodplains.

Elephants eat grass, fruit and tree roots.

Elephants have huge bodies and long trunks.

The average number of babies an elephant has is 1.

Elephants can live 55 to 70 years.

Elephants can travel at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

An elephant weighs about 3 to 8 tons and is about the size of a commercial truck. Females are usually smaller than males.

Three species of elephants currently exist: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant and the Asian elephant.

No, elephants tend to have gray skin, but some may appear brown or red in some cases.

In addition to their value as intelligent beings, elephants also play an important role in the ecosystem. They help prevent uncontrolled vegetation growth. They disperse undigested seeds into the surrounding environment. They create watering holes for other animals.

Elephants can survive having their tusks removed, but since ivory is made up of living tissue, this can be very painful and dangerous for the elephant, as well as reducing its quality of life.

The main differences between mammoths and elephants are their appearance, history, species, and habitat.