Elephants are the largest land mammal still extant, and the largest of them – African bull elephants – stand about 13ft tall and weigh something in the region of 15,000 lbs. Asian elephants are smaller, with cows generally averaging 7-9 ft in height and 6,600 lbs in weight. They all have approximately 350 bones and their joints tend to be rather tight, which improves their strength but limits their flexibility. It was one believed that elephants had no knee joints and therefore could never lie down or get up again if they fell over – this is untrue, but they do have a somewhat lumbering approach to getting upright.
They do a lot with their tusks and fighting sometimes involves head-to-head collision, and for these reasons their skulls are extremely tough. To reduce the resulting weight, they have a ‘honeycomb’ appearance with several cavities in areas that are otherwise well protected. Their eyesight functions well in dim light and is poor in bright conditions, perhaps as a result of their largely crepuscular nature.
The ears are a very easy way to tell the difference between Asian and African elephants: the former have quite small exterior ear flaps in comparison to the latter, who have ears that are large and fleshy. These flaps are used to release excess heat from the body, communicate with other elephants through body language, and swat away flies and other airborne nuisances. Elephants have quite acute hearing, and are capable of detecting sounds far lower than humans can register.
An elephant’s trunk is a miracle of evolutionary design. It’s actually an elongated fusion of the nose and the upper lip, and contains many thousands of tiny muscles that allow it to be manipulated with surprising delicacy. An elephant’s trunk can throw a man many hundreds of yards across a landscape, but equally it can be used to pluck a single berry from a bush. The opposable ‘fingers’ at its tip allow it to be used much like a hand, and these appendages are capable of lifting a small coin flat from the ground. It has many communicative uses, too, and elephants often express affection for one another by caressing each other with their trunks or ‘hugging’ with them, twining two trunks together closely. Of course, the trunk is also how an elephant produces its distinctive ‘trumpeting’ noise – and during fights they are curled up tight for dramatic effect and sometimes used as whips or bludgeons.
An elephant’s sense of smell is extraordinary; anything up to four times as sensitive as that of a Bloodhound dog. These amazing trunks can crack the shell of a peanut without breaking the nut itself, suck up water to spray into their mouths to drink or over their bodies to wash, dig deep into the ground or reach up high into a tall tree. An elephant can breathe through its trunk, and often uses it as a ‘snorkel’ that allows them to remain underwater for long stretches of time. When not being used for breathing, however, the average trunk can hold anything up to eight and a half litres of water from just one suck.
An elephant’s mouth can be compared to a conveyor belt: new teeth grow in at the back and gradually move forward as the front teeth fall out, a process that continues throughout the elephant’s life. This does eventually cease, however, and it’s relatively common for an elderly elephant to die of starvation caused by its being incapable of properly feeding itself.
All African elephants have tusks, whether male or female. They use these tusks for any number of practices: fighting and displays of aggression, digging and rooting through soil and earth, carving strips of bark from trees for eating and manipulating things they pick up for easier use. Elephants are chiral, and display a clear preference for either their right or left tusks. Asian elephants make much less use of their tusks than their African relatives – only bulls have them, and many of them are born without. It seems that tusks are becoming shorter in African elephants and rarer in Asian elephants as a result of natural selection; those elephants whose tusks are particularly magnificent are less likely to get to reproduce on account of being hunted and used in the ivory trade.
After the trunk, the skin of an elephant is one of its most instantly recognisable features. They tend to be grey, tough, and extremely wrinkled, and these wrinkles are thought to increase their surface area – keeping them cool and holding more of the dried mud that they use as a sort of primitive sunscreen. Many elephants have patches of discolouration, usually on their heads, ears and trunks. Elephants have a great deal of trouble keeping cool, largely thanks to their relatively low ratio of surface to volume, and this is almost certainly why they spend so much time bathing and playing in fresh water.