Science - Nature
By: - at March 16, 2015

15 Little Known Facts About Elephants

Elephants are the largest land-living mammals on earth and are classified into two distinct varieties; the African elephant and the Asian elephant. The elephant has played dynamic roles in religion and culture, and some regard them as practically deities. In Asia, elephants began their integration with human civilization as a means of powerful logistical transportation. Moving everything from stones and supplies during peace time, elephants first began their relationship with human beings in the region that today is known as India. During warfare, elephants were used by the heavy cavalry of Alexander the Great and the premise of using what's known as a war elephant was used by the armies of Hannibal and Carthage.

Female African Elephant
Female African Elephant
By Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Along with all of the positive and symbiotic relationships between man and elephant, unfortunately elephants have also been brutalized, poached, and perceived as nothing more than worthless flesh attached to priceless ivory. Both female and male African elephants have tusks, but only the male Asian elephants have tusks.

East African Ivory Traders During the 1880s
ivory trade

Demand for ivory, combined with habitat loss caused by human settlements, has pushed worldwide elephant populations down to alarmingly small numbers. Back in the 1930s, the African elephant population was estimated between 5 and 10 million. By the year 1979, there were only 1.3 million African elephants.

(1) Asian Elephant and (2) African Elephant

Although both varieties of elephant are considered to be endangered, Asian elephants are currently much more endangered than their African cousins. Around the year 1900, the Asian elephant population was estimated to be around only 200,000 worldwide. The scary part is that today, there are probably no more than only 35,000 to 40,000 remaining in the wild.

Male Indian Elephant
Male Indian Elephant
By Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

In spite of the endangerment issues both varieties of elephants may face, appreciation and reverence for elephants are still very popular among human beings. People are drawn to these fascinating creatures and desire to learn as much as they can about them. Obvious characteristics include their large size, surprising speed and agility, and their unique trunks. Still, there is much more to the animal than many people may have postulated based on the information regarding elephant-lore that is readily available. The segments below address some of these less prevalent pieces information regarding elephants.

15)  Elephants Walk on Their Tiptoes
Elephants are simply staggering in size. Adult male African elephants can weigh between 4,000 and 14,000 lbs or 2 to 7 tons. It’s remarkable to think that an elephant’s foot is made up in such a way that it basically walks on its tiptoes. The sole of an elephant’s foot consists of soft connective tissue.

By Psych USD via Wikimedia Commons

This allows the sole of the animal’s feet to work like a shock absorber. This also enables the animal to move almost silently, despite its massive size and weight.

By Jpatokal via Wikimedia Commons

The elephant’s foot is also contoured in such a way that it muffles the sound of cracking branches under its feet. The unusual make up of the elephant’s foot also allows the animal to traverse a number of different types of terrain with relative ease.

14)  Elephants’ Trunks Have More Than 40,000 Muscles
The most distinctive feature of an elephant is by far their trunk. It is an extremely useful feature that the animal can use for a variety of things. An elephant's trunk is able to sense the size, shape, and temperature of an object. The organ can be used to pick up things, strip branches of their leaves and even uproot trees if need be.

Asian Elephant's Trunk
Elephant trunk
By Greg George via Wikimedia Commons

It’s no wonder then that an elephant’s trunk has more than 40,000 muscles. This is in fact more muscles that the human body has. An elephant’s trunk has so many muscles in it that the tip of the trunk can even be used in a similar fashion to how humans control and use their hands. The same way in that humans use shaking hands as a greeting method, elephants intertwine their trunks to greet one another.

Asian Elephants Greeting Each Other
Asian Elephants
By jinterwas via Wikimedia Commons

13)  Elephants Have the Longest Gestation of Land Animals
Beyond poaching, one of the biggest threats to the dwindling elephant population throughout the world is the fact that elephants’ pregnancies are considerably long. In fact, they last 22 months. This allows for the calf to grow to an incredible size, so much so that the average weight of a baby elephant when it is born is around 260 pounds.

Baby African Elephant
Baby African Elephant

It is due to the long pregnancies that female elephants typically only give birth to a single calf every four years. This makes it difficult to breed a significant number of elephants in captivity, which is crucial to the animal’s longevity given all the dangers that the elephant faces in the wild.

Baby Indian Elephant
Baby Indian Elephant

12)  Elephants Can Die of a Broken Heart
Elephants are highly emotional animals. Similar to humans, the animals establish strong relationships with other elephants, so much so that they will deeply mourn the passing of members of their troop. In some cases, elephants have died as the result of a beloved troop member passing.

Troop of Elephants
Troop of Elephants

Young elephants are particularly vulnerable to dying of a broken heart. If a young elephant loses its mother, it may become emaciated and withdraw from social interaction with the rest of the troop. Other members of the young elephant’s troop will do their best to care for orphaned animals, though that may not be enough.

11)  Chili Pepper Is the Best Defense Against Wild Elephants
Throughout Africa there has always been a conflict between farmers and wild elephants. The problem is that elephants will routinely raid local farms. These raids can happen on a nightly basis and often result in the decimation of crops and even deaths of farmers and their families.

African Elephant Charging
African Elephant Charging

In 2006, farmers began fighting back using an unlikely source. Namely, chili peppers. The farmers realized that elephants have an aversion to capsaicin – the chemical found in chili that makes it hot. The farmers found that all they had to do to stop the elephants was plant a few rows of chilies around their crops. These rows would act as a buffer against the elephants.

Member of the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, Loki Osborn came up with the idea. He was inspired by the results of a similar trial in North America when pepper spray was used to deter bears. Osborn’s idea was first trialed in Cape Town, South Africa. As pepper spray was too expensive for most farmers, crops were planted instead. This proved to be much more beneficial for both farmers and elephants. It gave the farmers a feasible way to defend their property, while keeping the elephants away through non-violent means.

White Chili Pepper
White Chili Pepper
By Rayabhari via Wikimedia Commons

Osborn also showed farmers how make briquettes of crushed chili and manure. If the elephants weren’t deterred by the chili plants, then these bricks could be burned. They would create a noxious smoke that ward off the elephants. The program also made use of string fences that were doused with chili-infused grease.

With the success of the trial in South Africa, the measures were implemented in numerous other African nations. Ultimately, crop loss was reduced by around 90 per cent.

The cultivation of chilies also proved to be lucrative for the farmers. A number of farmers increased their profit by focusing on the production of chilies rather than other vegetables. This is because vegetables had a limited market. In contrast, the chili peppers could be used to make hot sauce that is then exported to a number of countries like Botswana, Zambia and the America.

10)  Elephants Are Scared of Bees
As mentioned earlier, African farmers have addressed the problem of elephants raiding farms by planting chilies. This proved to be a remarkably beneficial approach to the problem. Prior to the use of chili, though, the farmers had tried another approach. They had set up beehives around their properties, as they knew elephants were afraid of bees.

By Fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons

The only reason the bees didn’t work was because the elephants’ hunger was greater than their fear of the bees. Typically, though, elephants would avoid bees as best they could. Elephants are afraid of bees because bees will often fly up elephants trunks and sting them.

Given that bees are so small in size and fast moving, there is little elephants can do to either defend themselves or retaliate. Elephants regard bees with such fear that they have even developed a special hum that signals a warning to other elephants when bees are nearby.

9)  Elephants Mourn Their Dead and Have Death Rituals
Elephants are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They are also one of the most human-like. Elephants have been observed exhibiting a number of human characteristics. They have displayed self-awareness, altruism and even the ability to use tools. Perhaps the most human of all characteristics that the animals have displayed is grief.

Most animals have little to no regard for the remains of their peers but elephants are significantly different. They show great respect for troop members when they pass. Often, when a member of a troop dies, the remaining elephants will gather around the body of the departed animal and appear to pay their respects, as humans do at funerals.

grieving elephant

Elephants have even been seen to show respect for the bones of dead elephants. In one experiment, researchers tested whether African elephants could distinguish between bones of elephants and bones of other animals such as buffaloes and rhinos. The elephants were found to be able to recognize the remains of their own species.

Elephant Troop Mourning the Departed
Elephant Troop Mourning the Departed

Elephants have strong family ties and have often been seen mourning the loss of herd members in the wild. Reportedly, a troop of elephants even mourned the death of the man known as the Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony. Shortly after his death, his wife reported that a troop of elephants arrived on their property – as if to pay their respects to his family. Anthony’s wife stated that the animals were clearly in mourning and had somehow sensed the death of her husband.

8)  Kings Would Give White Elephants to People They Didn’t Like
In the past, the kings of Siam (now Thailand) had an unwritten tradition of giving white elephants to people they didn’t like. On the surface, the present of a white elephant would seem like a grand gesture. In reality, it was a subtle way for the king to financially ruin those he didn’t care for.

white elephant

Spiritually, white elephants were considered sacred throughout Southeast Asia. Possessing a white elephant was seen as a blessing. In reality, they were quite the opposite, as they required very high levels of maintenance – and a lot of money. Typically, whenever someone would receive a white elephant, they would ultimately be unable to care for the expensive animal.

7)  Elephants Are Angry Drunks
Elephants have displayed a number of human-like characteristics over the years. While most of these characteristics are positive, such as altruism and intelligence, the animals also have some bad human habits. For one thing, a surprisingly large number of elephants are alcoholics – raging drunks, in fact.

Drunk Elephants
Drunk Elephants

In 2007, a group of six elephants rampaged through an Indian village. They were after one thing in particular – the village’s supply of alcohol. Once the animals were well and truly drunk, they set about trashing the village. They were only stopped by their own drunken actions. They were electrocuted when they uprooted electrical poles. In 2002, another group of elephants drunkenly rampaged through another Indian village. This resulted in the death of 6 civilians.

Elephant Passed Out After Bender
Elephant drunk

Alcoholism amongst elephants isn’t as unusual as it might sound. It is an ever-growing problem throughout both Africa and India. Elephants are remarkably intelligent animals. They instinctively know that where there are humans, there is alcohol. Furthermore, elephants are adept at seeking out alcohol, so hiding it from the animals is difficult.

6)  “Extinct” Pygmy Elephants Were Found in Borneo
In 2008, a small population of genetically distinct elephants was discovered in Borneo by scientists. The researchers noticed that these elephants were significantly different in both physicality and personality from other elephants that they had investigated. As fanciful as it initially seemed, the scientists explored the possibility that the elephants might be members of a species long thought extinct. Tests soon confirmed that the animals were indeed, as the researchers had suspected, pygmy elephants – a species that no longer existed in their natural habitat.

Orphaned Pygmy Elephant and Wildlife Workers
Orphaned Pygmy Elephant and Wildlife Workers

The elephants exist today because of the actions of Asian rulers from centuries ago. Back then, it was common for rulers to exchange animals as gifts amongst one another. A small group of pygmy elephants were one such gift exchanged all those years ago. This inadvertently led to the survival of the species.

Researchers believe that the elephants were descendents of an elephant population that initially lived in Java (an island in Indonesia). It’s believed that they first came from the island of Sulu (now part of the Philippines).

It’s believed that the sultan of Java gave the elephants to the sultan of Sulu as a gift. For undetermined reasons, descendants of those elephants were later shipped to and abandoned on Borneo. Meanwhile, back on Java the elephants' population dwindled. By the end of the 1700s, the pygmy- elephant was believed to be extinct.

Pygmy Elephant
Pygmy Elephant

According to Michael Stuewe, an elephant biologist of the World Wildlife Foundation, the pygmy elephants on Borneo might be the oldest example of a wild mammal population that was inadvertently saved by royalty. This discovery suggests that other animals may have also been saved from extinction by removal from their natural habitat.

5)  Elephants Heard the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
In 2004, when the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck, it was reported that elephants headed for higher ground long before people knew of the imminent disaster. It was originally reported that the elephants must have sensed that tragedy was about to strike. Rather, it was because the animals actually heard the tsunami coming.

Epicenter of the 2004 Tsunami
Epicenter of the 2004 Tsunami

Before the tsunami struck, it produced very low-frequency sounds, known as infra-sound. The noise was too low in frequency for human beings to hear. However, elephants could well and truly hear the noise. They heard the ominous roar coming from the sea and instinctively headed for higher ground.

By Amoghavarsha via Wikimedia Commons

4)  Elephants Purr
Elephants are known for their trumpet call that they produce with the use of their trunks. Elephants also produce a lesser known sound to communicate to one another. These particular calls are similar to a purring sound that cats make. They are of a very low frequency, so much so that they are generally too low pitched for humans to hear.

African Elephant Trunk
African Elephant Trunk
By Just chaos via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers have been able to monitor elephants’ purr by using specially made collars that measure the vibrations when the animals make the call. There are a number of reasons why the animals make these calls. One of the main reasons female elephants produce the sound is to indicate to the rest of the troop that she is ready to give birth. This allows the rest of the troop to prepare for and protect the new baby during and after the event.

3)  Elephants Are Therapeutic
In 2011, elephants were utilized to conduct an unusual but remarkable project for helping children with autism. The project was inspired by the numerous cases where interaction with dogs had been used to help autistic children as a form of therapy.

Nuntanee Satiansukpong, the head of the occupational therapy department at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, believed that the elephants might prove to be beneficial for autistic children. Specifically, in regards to the sensory issues that many autistic children struggle with.

Nuntanee Satiansukpong Sitting on an Indian Elephant
Nuntanee Satiansukpong Sitting on an Indian Elephant

Many of the children involved had never seen elephants up close before. The therapy involved autistic children helping with the care of the animals. The children helped scrub down the elephants. They also rode and played ball games with the animals. The children would also sing to the creatures, to which the elephants would nod their heads to the rhythm of the music.

Each interaction with the animals was carefully designed to help the children learn social skills. Caring for the animals helped children learn the process of step-by-step instructions. Feeding the elephants helped the children overcome an aversion to sticky and rough textures. Playing with the elephants encouraged the kids to participate in group activities. Riding the elephants addressed poor posture and balance.

2)  Elephants Make Great Camera Operators
Elephants are remarkable animals, capable of performing a number of surprising tasks. Perhaps the most surprising thing that they are good at is camerawork. In 2000, elephants were utilized to provide researchers with insight into the lives of tigers. The elephants were equipped with cameras. This gave researchers a far greater insight into the behavior of tigers in the wild than they had ever had before.

The problem researchers had always had when it came to trying to study tigers in the wild was that tigers are secretive and live in dense jungle. This made it difficult for any film crew to get footage. Elephants were seen as the perfect four-by-four camera vehicle. The elephants were specifically trained to use cameras or “trunk cam” as it was known.

"Trunk" Cam
"Trunk" Cam

The crew used three types of high-definition cameras, which were developed and operated by cameraman Michael Richards. There was a remote-operated trunk-cam that filmed while the elephants were in motion. There was a remote-operated tusk-cam that the elephants could carry. There were also rock and log cams, which were cameras camouflaged as either a rock or log that could be placed anywhere on the ground and activated by motion.

The elephants also proved to be much like steady-cams. The elephants only required a small amount of training to learn to carry and set the cameras down. With the help of the elephants, everything the tigers did was captured.

Ultimately, the elephants proved to be the ultimate filming devices. The tigers were familiar with and unthreatened by the elephants. As such, the elephants were able to get closer to the tigers than any human being ever could have. As a result, the researchers were able to follow the growth of four tigers.

Photograph from "Trunk" Cam
Photograph from "Trunk" Cam

This sort of thing hadn't been done before. The cameras captured footage of a variety of other animals, including sloth bears, langur monkeys and red dogs. The footage was filmed in the Pench National Park in India, over the course of three years. The researchers obtained footage of the tigers from the time they were cubs right up into their adulthood. The footage was made into a program that was broadcast as a three-part series. It aired on BBC One and was called ‘Tiger: Spy in the Jungle’ (2008), with Sir David Attenborough narrating it.

1)  Elephants Are Evolving Smaller Tusks
Due to the demand for ivory amongst criminals, the elephant population throughout Africa has more than halved in the last 40 years. There have been a number of organizations that have done all they can to try and stop the illegal practice of poaching elephants for their ivory tusks. Some efforts of humans have proved to be effective. Others have struggled to make an impact. In 2008, it was discovered that elephants themselves are doing something to counter the ivory trade. Namely, they’re evolving to have smaller tusks.

African Elephant with Large Tusks
African Elephant with Large Tusks
By Unununium272 via Wikimedia Commons

The average tusk size of African elephants has halved since the mid 1800s. Furthermore, a similar trend has been noted in the Asian elephant population in India. Conservation experts claim the phenomenon is Darwinism in action, triggered by the mass slaughter of dominant male elephants. Shockingly, although evolution typically occurs over thousands of years, these changes have occurred over the course of just 150 years.

Zoologists at Oxford University believe that the slaughter of the largest male elephants has altered the breeding behavior of the animals. Researchers found that the full scale hunting of large males led to males with shorter tusks producing more offspring. As a result, the average tusk size of African elephants has since decreased overall.

African Elephant Grazing in Kruger National Park, South Africa
african elephant
By via Wikimedia Commons

Iain Douglas Hamilton, of the conservation charity Save the Elephants, said that the phenomenon may simply be due to an absence of older animals breeding. However, it is also possible that there has been a genetic selection pressure against large tusk size. Typically, larger tusks would serve as a means of fighting off other males and winning females. Nowadays, large tusks are practically a death sentence for an elephant, as they are so highly prized and rare. It’s possible that elephants have evolved smaller tusks, because the need for survival outweighs the usefulness of having larger tusks.

The impact elephants have had on a number of cultures throughout the world is as massive as the creatures themselves. Sadly, they’ll leave an even bigger gap in the world if the highly threatened species is ever wiped out entirely, which could easily happen and soon. They are by far one of the most complex and fascinating animals on the planet. There is little doubt that there are still plenty more remarkable facts to be discovered about elephants.





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