The common name is the African Elephant, the scientific name is Loxodonta
Africana, the phylum is Vertebrata, the class is Mammalia, the order is Proboscidea,
and the family is Elephantidae. The Closest Relatives to the African Elephant are: the
Asian Elephant, mammoths, primitive proboscidean (mastodons), sea cows, and
hyraxes. Scientists believe that the African Elephant evolved from one of its closest
relatives, the Sea Cow.
The geographical location and range of the African elephant covers all of
central and southern Africa. In Ethiopia there are isolated populations that exist
around Lake Chad in Mali and Mauritania. Also in Kenya, Rhodesia, Tanzania,
Zambia, Uganda, Zaire, and in National parks located in South Africa, as well as
several other countries. African Elephants, originally, were found in all of the
Sub-Saharan African habitats except desert steppes. Elephants still occupy diverse
habitats such as: temperate grassland, tropical savanna and grass lands, temperate
forest and rainforest, tropical rainforest, tropical scrub forest, and tropical deciduous
forest despite their drastic decline in numbers. However, their migratory patterns and
habitat use have changed, due to the fact that they are restricted to protected areas.
The elephant can exist in many types of environments but it prefers places that have
many trees and bushes, which the elephant needs both for food and shade. They also
like warm areas that have plenty of rainfall. This ensures plenty of food, shade, and
water. The elephant prefers a habitat of mixed woodland and grassland which gives
them an opportunity to eat a variety of vegetation.
African Elephants are considered herbivores, they are both browsers and
grazers; they will eat rough sticks, stems and leaves of plants as well as grasses,
sedges, and fruit. Their favorites are mangoes, berries and coconuts. An elephant eats
up to 500 pounds of vegetation every day and drinks up to 50 gallons of water daily.
Elephants must consume these giant quantities of food, due to their poor digestive
system. The small intestine is 82 feet long, the large intestine 21 feet long, and the
rectum adds a further 13 feet. The problem with the digestive tract lies in their gut;
elephants have too few symbiotic bacteria. These are the organisms which help break
down the cellulose of plant cell walls by producing enzymes called cellulases. The
most remarkable feature of the elephant’s digestive system is its 5 feet long appendix,
bigger than the stomach. Proteins, starches, and sugars are digested in the appendix.
The elephant will excrete almost 200 pounds a day of semi-digested food.
Elephants live together in strong family units which might have as few as two or
as many as twenty members. When the group gets too big, it splits up; but the groups
stay in close . Elephant life revolves around this unit which is usually headed
by the oldest female. The family offers protection, aid, comfort, and teaching to all of
its members. Within the units are cows, calves, and bulls. The male bulls are very
solitary and most of the time travel only with other males, except during mating season
when the bulls travel with the pack looking for a mate. The males remain with the
family unit until they are about fourteen and then leave the family to join the other
The African elephant usually gives birth to one calf every four years. The
gestation period is approximately twenty to twenty two years. The newborn calf,
which weighs 200-300 pounds and stands about three feet high, is cared for by all of
the females in the pack, not just by the mother. The calf may nurse as long as eight
years, or until its tusks are too long for the mother. It takes about 14 to 15 years for an
elephant to fully mature. They grow to about 10-13 feet tall and 7.5 meters in length
and weigh as much as 7 tons. The family will remain together throughout their lives.
The elephant’s body has many special features which it has adapted throughout
the centuries to help it survive in its environment. The most important part of the
elephant’s body is its trunk. An elephant uses its trunk for many things. With it, the
elephant can pick up objects that weigh as much as 600 lbs. This powerful trunk is
also used to beat off attacking animals and sometimes mother elephants use their
trunks to swat their babies. The trunk, which is very flexible, can curl over the
elephant’s head so that the elephant can give itself showers and dust baths. The trunk
also curls towards the elephant’s mouth so it can eat and drink. At the end of the trunk
the elephant has finger-like projections similar to the human thumb and forefinger.
With this the elephant can pick up small objects. Baby elephants often suck their
trunks just like human babies suck their thumbs. The nostrils at the tip of the trunk are
highly sensitive, an elephant can detect a water source from as far as 12 miles away,
and detect the reproductive status of another elephant from some distance.
The elephant also has tusks which can dig up roots and help the elephant dig at
dried up river beds for water. They also help the elephant fight off attackers. The
tusks are made of ivory and this is why the elephants are being poached. Poachers can
earn $5,000 for just 40 pounds of ivory tusks.
Another unusual part of the elephant’s body is its huge ears which can be four
feet wide in the male African elephant. With their huge ears the elephant can swat
bugs, look fierce, and keep itself cool. Although the ears are so big the elephant has
poor hearing and rely on their sense of smell. Since the elephant cannot sweat to
release heat, they must have another means of releasing their body heat. The elephant
will repeatedly beat its ears along the side of its head. When they do this the blood in
its ears cools and the cool blood is then circulated to the rest of the body. The
wrinkles in their skin help to increase the surface area of the elephant, which helps in
cooling, and mud and water are also trapped under the wrinkles, further helping the
elephant to keep cool.
The elephant has four molars on each side of its mouth. The molars of adult
elephants are the size of bricks. There They get six new sets of molars in a lifetime.
They get their last set when they are about 45 years old, and after those fall out the
elephant will starve to death.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. They have very large and
well-developed brains and excellent memories. Elephants have strange habits and
ways of communication. One means of communication is trumpeting. They have
different tones of trumpeting which indicate different moods, such as playfulness and
excitement. Trumpeting is also used to frighten off attackers. Their most important
way to communicate is what is called “stomach rumbles” although the sound actually
comes from its throat. Scientists have found fifteen types of rumbles indicating
different things. One rumble means for the herd to move on, loud rumbles are used to
greet family members and other rumbles help them locate each other. Scientists even
think that elephants communicate long-distance with these rumbles, which are
infrasound, low frequency waves which travel many miles. Elephants can hear and
produce low notes in the region of 14-16 Hz, well below the range of the human ear.
Elephants often communicate a lot when they are grieving over the death of a family
member. Because the family is so important, young elephants are very upset when
others die. Elephants have been known to bury their dead with twigs and leaves and
stay by the “graves” for many hours.
In 1930 there were five to ten million elephants in Africa but because of
poaching and some natural disasters (fires, droughts) their numbers were reduced to
about 1.3 million by 1976 and to about 600,000 now. The African elephant was really
threatened by hunters and poachers during the years 1978-1989 and was declared an
endangered species in 1989. CITES currently lists the African elephant on appendix I,
meaning all trade regarding this animal is prohibited. However, since 1989 it has been
making a strong comeback because of the efforts of many people and countries to
protect them. In some African countries they are now so over-populated in the lands
left available to them that scientists are trying to invent a form of birth-control for
elephants. Hunting of the elephant is banned but poaching for ivory is still
widespread. In 1989 a stack of 3,000 confiscated tusks are worth about $3 million
dollars was burned by Kenya’s president. Kenya is one of the many countries taking
steps to save the elephants. In Tsavo East National Park in Kenya a group called the
Anti-poaching Rangers patrol the park. Their job is to follow the shoot-to-kill order
issues by the president.
Gaeth, A.P. “The Developing Renal, Reproductive, and Respiratory systems of the
African Elephant Suggest an Aquatic Ancestry.” Proceeding of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Volume 96, No 10.
May 11, 1999 pg. 5555-5558
This primary source gave us information on the ancestry of the African Elephant,
such as their closest relatives. It also told us the endangered status of the animal.
Groning, Karl., and Martin Saller. “Elephants” A Cultural and Natural History
This source gave us information on all aspects of the elephant’s physical
composition, specifically the digestive system, and homeostatic mechanisms.
Hoare, Richard E., and Johan T. Du Toit. “Coexistence between People and
Elephants in African Savannas” Conservation Biology Volume 13, No 3. June 1999
This primary source gave us details on elephant population in regards to human
Moore, Tara. The Endangered Species Elephants. pp. 15-20, 27-32.
Champaign, IL: Garrad Publishing Company 1982.
This source delt with some of the basic facts about the elephant, such as their diet and
geographical location and range.
Norton, Boyd. The African Elephant: Last Days of Eden.
Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 1991.
This source gave us information on population figures, poaching, natural disasters,
and birth control methods.
Overbeck, Cynthia. Elephants.
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1983
This source gave us information on the family groups of elephants, and on their
methods of communication, and also detail about their tusks, and trunks as defensive
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