Elephants: Inside the life of the largest animal on land

african-bush-elephantAn African elephant in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Photo: Shutterstock
botswana elephants
Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Photo: Shutterstock

Fun facts about elephants

Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are easily recognized by their long trunks which are used for handling objects.

Below you’ll find 30 fun facts about elephants that you probably didn’t know about.

1. The elephant is the only mammal that can’t jump.

2. Elephants spend about 16 hours a day eating consuming around 300-500 pounds of vegetation per day.

3. Elephants have poor eyesight but an amazing sense of smell.

4. Elephants have greeting ceremonies when a friend that has been away for some time returns to the group.

5. Elephants are very good swimmers. Although they float, they become almost completely submerged and use their trunk to breathe like a snorkel in deep water.

elephant swimming
An elephant swimming. Photo: Shutterstock

6. Elephants prefer one tusk over the other, just as humans are either right or left-handed. Their tusks are used for lifting things, digging for water, and also used to defend themselves.

7. An elephant’s skin is an inch thick. The combination of thick skin and a thin layer of fat underneath enables the elephant to tolerate cold temperatures.

8. Elephant families have a matriarchal head, meaning that the older female member of the family known as the “matriarch” leads the herd.

9. When the male elephant turns around 12 to 15 years old, he will begin to break away from the main herd to either live alone or find a loosely-knit group of male elephants to join.

10. Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, joining only dolphins, apes, and humans as animals that possess this kind of self-awareness.

11. Elephants are not long-distance runners because of their considerable size.

Although they start their “run” at only 8 km/h, elephants have been reported to reach speeds up to 40 km/h (25 mph).

This is a speed that rivals even the fastest humans.

More fun facts about elephants

12. Elephant weight

The biggest elephant on record was an adult male African elephant found in Angola in 1956. This elephant weighed about 24,000 lb (11,000 kg).

The average African elephant weighs between 2,300 kg and 6,300 kg.

The average Asian elephant weighs anywhere from 2,300 kg to 5,000 kg.

13. The elephant brain

Elephants are very smart creatures. They have the largest brain of all land mammals, with a mass of over 5 kg, and three times as many neurons as humans.

They also have amazing memories and can remember important information such as the whereabouts of waterholes which allows them to survive during the dry periods in the plains.

14. The elephant’s heart

The average weight for an elephant heart is about 12 to 21 kg (27 to 46 pounds) which makes up about 5% of their weight.

When standing, the elephant’s heart beats approximately 30 times per minute. Unlike many other animals, the heart rate speeds up to about 40 times per minute when the elephant is lying down.

The increased heart rate is due to the reduced efficiency of respiration when lying down.

15. The elephant’s trunk

Given that they have the largest nose in the world, it is perhaps not surprising that elephants have the best sense of smell of all animals.

Elephants wave their trunks up in the air and from side to side to smell better.

Studies have shown that they are able to pick up smells several miles away to warn them of approaching danger.

The Elephant nose uses its trunk-like extension to lift food and suck up water then pour it into its mouth.

The trunk is also used to breath, and communicate – as well as being used as a ‘hand’ to touch, feel, hold, grab, pull etc.

The trunk contains over 40,000 muscles and is incredibly strong and powerful capable of lifting an approximately 300kg.

16. Elephant tail

An elephant’s tail can be as long as 1.3m and can whisk away flies and other insects making it the perfect fly swatter.

Baby elephants will sometimes hold on to their mothers while they are walking.

17. Elephant ear

Elephant ears contain a large number of blood vessels which are covered by very thin skin.

elephant ear
Photo: Shutterstock

When the ears are flapped, they quickly lower their body temperature which helps keep the whole animal cool.

This swiftly circulating blood is cooled by about 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5° Celcius).

18. The elephant’s foot

Elephants have five toes, the tips of which are in contact with the ground. Their toes are covered in a soft padding that helps uphold their weight and prevent them from slipping.

19. Elephants mating

When a male reaches sexual maturity at about the age of 14, he leaves his family and lives alone or with other groups of males.

The female elephant reaches sexual maturity at about the age of 12.

Female elephants come into estrus (heat) marking ovulation and the ability to get pregnant, for only a few days each year.

The female in estrus signals her condition via chemicals in her urine when sexually receptive.

The female will also exhibit characteristic changes in her posture, and behavior when she’s ready to mate.

She will also signal her location to males with a series of loud, very low-frequency calls that can be heard many miles away.

Upon receiving this signal, males begin to travel toward it which can take a day or two.

When they arrive, the males will fight over the female.

To maximize her chances of reproductive success, the female elephant prefers to pair up with a dominant male in “musth” – a period of high testosterone levels that males have for a couple of months each year.

Male elephants in musth are highly aggressive and may win contests against and even kill non-musth males.

The fights between the males are often over in a minute after one male has asserted itself as the strongest and most powerful. Some of the fights last several hours if the fights are more evenly matched.

elephants fighting
Two male elephants fighting over the female. Photo: Shutterstock

After the fight has finished, the female will then approach the winner and rub her body affectionately up against his, thereby accepting him as a mate.

If she does not do this, the rejected winner simply leaves and the remaining elephants fight again – continuing the process until a pairing has been made that suits the female.

20. Elephant sex position

When having sex, the male elephant stands up on his back two legs and mounts the female elephant from behind.

After the deed is done, the two elephants will spend time together until she is no longer in estrous.

If the male is still in musth, he may go find another female to mate with.

The female, on the other hand, spends the next 22 months pregnant and won’t mate again for at least another year after her baby is born.

21. Elephant birth

Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal.

When the time comes, she gives birth to her baby with the other females in the group standing in a circle around her.

The pregnant mother bends her back legs and squats down during the birthing process. The birth usually lasts two hours.

The baby elephant usually weighs about 200 pounds (90 kg) and are about 3 feet tall.

After the baby elephant is born, the mother and all of the other females in her group will raise the baby together without the help of the father.

If the baby elephant complains, the entire family are willing to take care of it.

female elephants
Female elephants looking after the baby elephant. Photo: Shutterstock

22. Sleeping elephant

Wild elephants have the shortest sleep period of any mammal according to a new study in the journal PLOS One.

Studies of two matriarch elephants in the Chobe National Park in Botswana revealed that on average‚ they slept two hours a night. This is less than elephants in zoos‚ which on average sleep double that a night.

The researchers monitored the two matriarchs for 35 continuous days using GPS trackers and “actiwatch implants” — basically, an animal Fitbit — to measure the creatures’ activity levels.

On five of those days, the elephants didn’t get any sleep at all, resulting in them being awake for up to 48 hours continuously.

During these periods, they traveled long distances of around 30 kilometers, possibly to evade lions or poachers. But they didn’t appear to compensate with extra sleep after going a night without.

african bush elephant
An African elephant in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Photo: Shutterstock

“We observed on five occasions that the elephants went without sleep for up to 48 hours and they exhibited no form of sleep rebound following a night without sleep,” said lead researcher Paul Manger.

Most of their sleep occurred between 1.00 and 6.00 am, and the elephants snoozed in different places every night.

They slept both standing up and lying down, but they slept lying down only every three or four days according to the study.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the elephants slept not in a single slumber but in four to five short bursts – a pattern known as polyphasic sleep.

During these short episodes of standing sleep, the elephants would lean against trees or rocks for support.

For now, it appears that the wild elephant has the shortest known sleep time of any land mammal.

The next shortest sleeper seems to be the domestic horse, which gets just three hours a day, followed by the domestic pony, which gets slightly more.

The longest seems to be the little brown bat, which gets an incredible 19 hours of sleep a day.

23. Elephant poop

The elephant’s digestive system is not very good with over 50% of what they eat coming out the other end.

elephant poop
Elephant poop. Photo: Shutterstock

There are dollars to be made from elephant poop and this is how humans use it.

  • Since elephant poop is mostly fiber, it can fairly easily be made into paper. Elephants can generate enough poop to make 100 sheets of paper a day.
  • Elephant poop is used in many countries for fuel. It’s a lot cheaper than modern fuel but it does increase air pollution.
  • Filling holes in the road. The natural fibers in the poop act as a sieve, filtering sand and soil that would otherwise have washed downhill.
  • Elephants are used in Thailand’s Golden Triangle to produce some of the world’s most expensive coffee. This coffee is made from beans eaten by a herd of elephants and picked a day later from their poop.
  • Elephant poop can be used as a natural mosquito repellent. When burnt, it gives out a strong smell that keeps mosquitoes away.
  • Kono Kuro, a dark stout made from coffee beans that have passed through an elephant, proved to be so popular at $100 per bottle that the company sold out their entire stock in under a day.

24. Elephant life expectancy

Elephants live longer than any other land mammal, except for man.

Today humans have an average lifespan of 79 years. The average life expectancy of an Asian Elephant is around 63–68 years. The African Elephant is between 56–61 years.

25. Elephants cause of death

Aside from tusks, all elephant teeth are molars.

One molar can weigh about five pounds and is the size of a brick!

Elephants normally change their molars six times during their lifetime, when older molar gets worn-out, they get replaced horizontally from new ones.

When an elephant’s final set of teeth falls out, the elephant is unable to eat and eventually dies from starvation.

26. Elephants mourning

Elephants have long been known to mourn their dead.

There have been reports of elephants staying beside the bodies of dead friends for three days and nights, refusing to move.

Elephant spiritual meaning

There are several lessons we can learn from the elephant and these too are used as its symbol.

Elephants symbolize strength, wisdom, intelligence, solitude, and a strong sense of loyalty to the family.

Elephant statues are popular worldwide. It is a common superstition that placing a statue, a picture, or a carving of an elephant at the front door brings good luck into the house.

Many business owners in Asia have a Buddha elephant statues by the entrance of the building.

These are believed to provide stability, longevity, and success to the company and thereby protecting them from ill fortunes.

As the saying goes, keep a lucky elephant at the door to your house so that you can get protection from bad luck.

white elephant
A set of white elephant statues. Photo: Shutterstock