Diet and Eating Habits
Elephants are known the world over for their size – and, therefore, for the size of their diet. Depending on species, elephants eat anything up to 350 lbs of plant matter on a daily basis – and all elephants need to drink between 40 and 212 (an adult male elephant) liters of water a day, not including the water they use to bathe! These remarkable portion sizes lead them to spend about 80% of their waking hours eating, and have given them the name ‘megaherbivores’.
What do Elephants Eat?
By and large, elephants are not fussy eaters. They’ll munch on almost any kind of flora, but for the sake of volume and convenience they generally prefer to eat large plants – big trees and shrubs, or tall grasses. They’re perfectly happy to eat smaller plants and flowers or ordinary grass, however. They consume a great deal of tree bark, which has plenty of fibre and roughage to aid good digestion. They enjoy eating fruit, vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds – and will happily dig into twigs and roots as well.
Elephants seem to enjoy stimulants and altered states of consciousness in much the same way as humans do. They particularly enjoy consuming fruits and have been known to intentionally leave piles of them to ferment in the sunshine before returning to take advantage of its newfound alcoholic content.
In captivity, elephants will eat pretty much anything so long as it is strictly vegetarian. They do seem to enjoy a wide variety of treats that they wouldn’t find in their natural habitat – including pumpkins, and of course the famous peanuts! They’re big fans of anything sweet and sugary, and love all kinds of fruit. Just like humans, elephants can have a ‘favourite food’ that varies depending on the individual – generally speaking it’s some kind of sweet fruit.
How do Elephants get Their Food?
For most elephants, the trunk is the primary eating utensil. An elephant’s trunk is a remarkable thing; they can use it to swiftly tear down large trees in one fell swoop, but it is also gentle and delicate enough to pick an individual berry without squashing it. With their trunks they reach up to pluck the freshest shoots from the canopies of leaves, pull out swathes of twigs and foliage, and spray copious amounts of water into their mouths in one go. Much as with humans, it’s very rare for an elephant to take anything directly into their mouth – they almost always grab it with their trunk first and transfer it in that manner.
Some elephants – particularly of the Asian variety – use their toenailed feet to help them dig into the ground for roots and shoots, and pull out these delicacies when they find them. African elephants don’t have such agile feet, but still scrape and rummage at the ground with them.
An elephant’s tusks aren’t just used for looking formidable and fighting each other – though these things do happen! They’re also of great use in the eating process; with them, an elephant can carve strips of bark off a tree, or hook up an awkward root and pull it from the ground. They can also be used to churn the earth in search of nuts and seeds, and carve into rock to find salt licks and other minerals. Over time, elephants have been known to carve deep caverns into mountainsides in this way – caverns that become a vital part of the shelter and habitat of any number of other creatures.
Digestion and Dietary Requirements
An elephant’s digestion is remarkably inefficient. Generally speaking, they are only able to digest about 40% of the food they eat – which is one of the reasons they need to consume in such a high volume. This results in the production of a great deal of dung, which is often picked through by other animals – most likely baboons – to find and eat undigested nuts and seeds.
Elephants are incapable of digesting meat, and find it completely unappetising. They are “obligate herbivores” in just the same way that some other animals are obligate carnivores.
It also seems that the mineral content derived from digging with tusks is essential to the elephant’s diet – away from rocks they can gouge into for salt licks and the like, elephants will ruck up and eat clods of soil to attempt to restore the balance. Much of this, too, passes out undigested into the dung. Elephants in captivity have been observed doing this even when fed a diet more varied and containing more vitamins and minerals than one that they would be able to find in the wild.