Campus Life

Family Elephantidae: Because I Just Really Wanted To | Houston’s Zoo No. 05

John Donne called them “Nature’s great masterpiece.” They never forget, and are faithful “one hundred percent.” In white, you don’t want them, in pink, you hope not to see them, and if there’s one in the room, you can’t even acknowledge it. To capture one takes two raisins, three cakes, tweezers, and a telescope; but if he’s trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.

Yes, this week, I’m talking elephants, and I promise I’m not excited beyond what anyone would consider healthy. Not by much, anyway. Elephants have always been near and dear to my heart, and I’m not alone. Millions of people around the globe are captivated by these charismatic colossi, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re physically magnificent, cognitively complex, and incite emotions in us that have kept centuries of civilizations coming back to the elephant as a symbol of strength, wisdom, and royalty.

I could continue down this poetic path, but I’m so passionate about this subject that I’d get far too subjective, and never get around to the natural history section. To that end, I’ll cut the ivory-tower irrelephance (but not the puns) and get into the hard facts. It’s impossible to decide where to begin, but let’s dive in anyway, and eat this article one bite at a time.

Family elephantidae consists of all living and extinct elephants and mammoths. Extinct family members ranged in size from the three-foot-tall Palaeoloxodon falconeri of the Mediterranean Islands to the (estimated) 24-ton (US) P. namadicus of India, which was the largest land mammal to ever live. P. namadicus easily beat out the second-largest: a long-necked ancient rhino called Indricotherium transouralicum, which was only a puny 19 US tons.

Our three species of modern elephants, while not near namadicus in size, are still the first, second, and… well, first and second largest land mammals alive today. The African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) averages seven tons, but the largest recorded was an old male who tipped the scales at about twelve tons. The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) is not too far behind at six tons, but then there’s Loxodonta cyclotis.

The poor little African Forest Elephant (L. Cyclotis) is the smallest living elephant species, averaging only three tons. There are rhinos bigger than that! Rhinos! To add insult to injury, they weren’t even recognized as their own species until very recently. Before genetics proved otherwise, they were considered the same thing as L. africana.

Well, I’ve spent three paragraphs on weight, and too many Latin names. I think it’s time to move on to a new topic: behavior. Elephants of all types are highly intelligent and social animals. Adult females (called cows) form large herds wherein they collectively care for their calves, and stick together for life. The oldest cow is typically the leader of the herd, or matriarch. Under the leadership of the matriarchy, everyone gets along harmoniously.

Except, of course, the males. Bull elephants are decidedly less social than their female counterparts. Pubescent bulls can become dangerously aggressive toward their siblings and cousins, and are therefore pushed out of their mother’s herd at around the age of five or six, right when the elephant hormones start to kick in. Essentially, momma elephant knows what’s about to happen, and sends junior packing just to be safe. The young bull will then be left to fend for himself for the rest of his 60- or 70-odd years, only coming in contact with other elephants when it’s time to mate.

Sort of a lonely existence, being a bull elephant.

Finally, I want to get into one often-overlooked aspect of elephant life: their sensitivity. They may have a thick-skinned reputation, but these ever-popular pachyderms are surprisingly delicate in a lot of ways. You may have heard of elephants grieving when they come across the dried skeleton of a deceased herd member, but I’m not even talking about emotions here. I’m talking about actual, physical sensitivity. Elephants can hear, smell, and even feel better than we do. The ears and the nose make heightened scent and sound senses unsurprising, but touch?

Odd as it sounds, elephant skin is incredibly sensitive. They sunburn easily, and employ mud as a sunscreen. They can feel a fly land on any part of their body, and have thus developed a universal phobia—not of mice, as you may have seen in cartoons—but of BEES. Elephants hate bees. They know the noisy insects can hurt them, and therefore steer clear of anything that buzzes. Farmers in Africa and Asia have discovered this fear, and used it to their advantage. They simply install beehives around the perimeter of their fields, and never have to worry about elephants endangering their crops.

Elephants also show their sensitivity in their feet. Skeletally speaking, they walk tiptoe, with a large cushiony pad between the bones of their heel and the ground. This allows them to walk very softly, but it has another, added benefit. See, elephants have very low vocalizations that allow them to communicate over vast distances. They pick up these vibrations, not with their sizable ears, but with their feet. The vibrations travel up the leg, to the middle ear bones, and voila! Long-distance elephone service. Or would that be telephant?

Oh, I could and would and should keep going, because I’ve barely scratched the wrinkly gray surface, but it’s time to wrap up the article. As always, I encourage everyone to read up on elephant trivia elsewhere, and maybe see if you can stump me in the comments.

I’ll bet my last peanut you can’t do it.

That’s all from me. If you have any questions, or would like to request an animal to be featured, comment down below and It’ll be my pleasure to help you out.

See you next weekend, and until then I am…

As I ever am.

Photo Credits to The Houston Zoo, EoFauna, Elephants and Bees, and Yours Truly

Categories: Campus Life

2 replies »

  1. O.K. Move over Mr. Rogers and Mr. Wizzard! Entertaining Education is your gift. Answers are your quest. Since the elephant is associated with the Buddhist Religion to symbolize power, wisdom, strength and protection of the home why do we not have stories or movies expressing more respect for them? Am I right in assuming that they are what we might call a role model? PAX Tim


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