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Elephants: Matchless, Gigantic, Earthly Pachyderms

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Elephants are one of the most recognized and beloved animals on our planet. Perhaps it’s because they are so awe-inspiringly gigantic (the largest animals living on land) and otherworldly, yet these gentle giants possess so many human-like qualities, which is truly mind-boggling. What are those qualities, you may ask? Before we mull over that question, let us take a brief look into the history of modern elephants.

Elephants. Photo: Unsplash/Glen Carrie

Elephant Ancestry and Lineage

The ancestry of modern elephants dates back to Africa almost 35 million years ago and the early lineage of elephants were called Paleomastodons. They were much smaller compared to modern day elephants, being about the size of a cow with a short trunk and tusks. Later, the prehistoric elephants expanded and moved into what is now Eurasia, during which they experienced many physical and morphological changes through evolution. Modern day elephants only evolved about 5 million years ago, notably during the Ice Age that began around 2.5 million years ago. During the Ice Age, much of the planet was covered with frozen ice, but it was also a time when large fauna developed. Among them were the great elephant-like mastodons and mammoths. The mastodon pre-dates the mammoth and was shorter and stockier with straighter tusks that enabled them to be wood browsers. On the other hand, there were 3 species of mammoths: the Columbian mammoth, Jefferson’s mammoth, and the most widely known, woolly mammoth. Unlike the mastodon, mammoths were thought to be grazers with teeth adapted to chew on grass. Mastodons and mammoths flourished until the end of the Ice Age about 10,500 years ago when the ice started melting and the entire landscape changed. A definitive explanation for their extinction is debatable, but studies suggest that the warmer climate along with the demise of many types of vegetation perhaps led to the mass extinction of these beasts along with many other animals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. In addition, there is also some evidence of overhunting by humans. Recent studies have shown that the characteristics of woolly mammoths closely resemble those of the Asian elephants, while the mastodon resembles those of the African species. It is interesting to note that although most of the mastodons and woolly mammoths did die at the end of the last Ice Age, few woolly mammoths managed to survive on the island of Wrangel in Russia. It was because this island was at a higher altitude and the rising water level due to the melting of ice did not reach it. However, the remaining 500-1,000 woolly mammoths likely consumed all the available food resources and due to interbreeding, they too ultimately perished as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Woolly Mammoth
Woolly Mammoth. Photo:

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Modern Day Elephants

There are several species of modern day elephants. The humongous African elephant is the largest land mammal and is divided into 2 subspecies: the African bush elephant and the African Forest elephant. An African elephant male stands about 13 feet (~4m) and weighs over 20,000 lbs (10.4 tons)! The other species of modern day elephants are the Asian varieties. The most well-known is the Indian elephant which is slightly smaller than its African cousin. The largest male stands about 10 feet (~3m) tall and weighs around 11,000 (5.5 tons). Furthermore, there are sub-species of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysia. The Borneo Elephant is also called the Pygmy elephant because it is the smallest of all elephants, standing about 8 feet (2.4m). Unfortunately, these gentle creatures are extremely endangered and threatened.

African Elephant
African Elephant Photo: Unsplash/Keyur Nandaniya

Indian Elephant
Indian Elephant Photo: Unsplash/Dusan Veverkolog

Cognitive Features of Elephants

Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal, weighing 3 times heavier and having 3 times as many neurons as that of a human being. Its neocortex, an essential brain component, is quite large and extraordinarily complex, much like that of a human being. An Asian elephant’s cerebral cortex has a large volume. This is what powers the elephant’s cognitive features, which are better than that of its African counterpart. This is also the reason why Asian elephants are easier to train than their African relatives. In Mohan Jo Daro (now in Pakistan), the elephant was tamed as far back as more than 4,500 years ago. Since then, they have been used as temple elephants for carrying out laborious tasks, such as in processions during religious and other festivals in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and others.

Elephants are also known for their phenomenal memory—you may have even heard the commonly used idiom “An elephant never forgets”. It has been shown that an elephant can even paint an object that it is thinking about, which is incredibly remarkable. Elephants use all their faculties such as their sense of smell, touch, and hearing to gauge and assimilate information about their surroundings and of any danger. Their brain processes all the information and directs them to function accordingly. While their sense of vision is a bit poor, their sense of smell is especially acute. They can smell water deep underground or from about 12 miles (~19 Km) away.

Not only are elephants highly intelligent, they possess a high emotional capacity as well. If we look at many herd-dwelling, herbivorous mammals such as deer, zebra and wildebeests, it is the mother alone who protects and feeds her young from the time they are born. No other member of the herd helps her. In fact, a different mother will even kick away another’s fawn if it ventures closer to her. In stark contrast, from the time an elephant calf is born, all elephants in a herd tend to protect it irrespective of whose baby it is. As can be seen in the below photo of an African elephant herd walking in a line, led by the old matriarch, the babies are always put in the middle as a protective shield. In the next photo, we can see a female elephant making a gesture to a calf, perhaps she is the mother teaching the young how to cross the river.

Elephant herd protecting young in a march
Elephant herd protecting young in a march. Photo:

Mother elephant teach baby to cross water
Mother elephant teach baby to cross water. Photo:

Other Amazing Features of Elephants

The elephant tusks are actually equivalent to enlarged incisor teeth. The ivory part of the tusk is made of dentine with an outer enamel. Tusks form as early as when the elephant is 2 years old and continue to grow throughout their lives. Interestingly, while all African elephants, both male and female, have protruding tusks, female Asian elephants do not.

An elephant’s trunk is the most versatile appendage. It is used for drinking, breathing, and touching. Elephants suck in huge quantities of water through their trunk and squirt over their body while bathing. In comparison to the entire human body that has only around 639 muscles, the trunk of an elephant has about 40,000 muscles. Trunks are so versatile and flexible that an elephant can lift a huge, heavy object weighing about 700 lbs (~318 Kgs) as easily as it can pick up a small button. Just imagine the power of its brain to make all those muscles work!

How to Support Elephants

At PETAL Wildlife, we adore elephants--just look at our logo! 100% of net proceeds from all purchases go towards preserving and protecting endangered species, like elephants. Here are some other ways you can help these amazing creatures:

  1. Tweet #WorldElephantDay to spread the word about elephants, their plight, and how we can rescue them.

  2. Be aware of elephant habitats. Buy only fair-trade coffees and products without palm oil.

  3. Do not buy ivory products or other wildlife products. Purchasing ivory products is illegal is several states, including California, New York, and more. Push for a ban on ivory purchasing in your state if not already done.

  4. Adopt an elephant. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust lets you adopt an elephant and other incredible animals for as little as $50 a year.

Did You Know?

· It was once thought that the small African mammal called a hyrax was the closest relative of modern elephants. However, recent studies have shown that these gentle giants are closer to modern Sirenians, like the dugong and the manatee.

· In the past, when people accidentally came upon a skull (which we now think could have been that of a mastodon or a mammoth), they thought it was the skull of a giant human being. This is because the huge skull only had holes for eyes and nose, so it is speculated that this is how fictional giants in stories and epics, like the Cyclops in Homer’s Iliad, originated.


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