World Elephant Day, coming up on Monday, August 12th, was established in 2012 as a way to celebrate these wonderful mammals and promote conservation efforts. There are two main genus’ alive today: the African elephant (Loxodonta) and the Asian elephant (Elephas). The African elephant genus is split between two species the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Only one species of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is still alive today.
As the largest living mammals elephants consume 300-400 pounds of food each day, and each bite plays a vital role in fighting climate change. Research on the recently-named African forest elephant shows that they eat the shorter, thinner trees and vegetation closer to the ground, allowing for the thicker, larger trees to grow with less competition for sunlight and water. This in turn produces more plant mass in total than if the elephants weren’t consuming any plants at all! This increase in plant mass increases the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed, thereby reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Similarly, the African bush elephant feeds on large bushes and trees, tearing them down and ripping them apart as they go. This allows for lower, shorter vegetation to flourish. Elephants have poor digestive tracts which means a lot of the plants they consume don’t get fully digested. As a result, elephant dung becomes a source of food for smaller animals. In the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig for water, which many animals rely on for their water sources. The Asian elephant also plays a critical role in their environment using similar behaviors. Their large appetites limits overgrowth of vegetation and they act as seed dispersers of the plants they consume. The role all elephants play in their environment earned them the title of a keystone species. Keystone species are species that an ecosystem largely depends on, if a keystone species were removed (say by extinction) the ecosystem would drastically change.
Unfortunately, elephants are endangered due to habitat destruction and the high demand of the ivory trade. Conservation efforts have helped stabilize populations in many countries but they are still very endangered. If you would like to help save the elephants consider donating to conservation groups, such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who help rehabilitate orphaned elephants, reintroduce them to the wild, and work with local people to protect elephants and educate them on the important role elephants play in this world. Now, to celebrate elephants today, here are some fun facts about elephants to enjoy!
- The African bush elephant is the largest living mammal on land, and can be identified by their humongous ears, that some say are shaped like the continent they live on.
- Elephants are the only mammals that can not jump!
- Elephants prefer using one tusk over the other. Next time you see one (maybe at Indianapolis Zoo) take a couple minutes to see if you can figure out if it prefers its right tusk or left tusk.
- Speaking of tusks, female Asian elephant tusks only grow a few inches if at all and they’re called “tushes”.
- While many are familiar with the sound of an elephant trumpeting, elephants also communicate using subsonic rumbles that travel through the ground.
- Elephants are matriarchal, meaning that elephant groups are led by the eldest female. Herds of elephants can number between 8-100 members and are made up of adult females and their offspring.
- Elephants live long lives and in the wild they can live until 60 or 70 years old. The oldest elephant on record was 88 when she passed away.
- Efforts to domesticate the Asian elephant started as far back as 3,000 years ago. However, due to their long life span, the process is slow and elephants are still not considered domesticated like cats or dogs. To be considered domesticated, animals must be selectively bred for at least 12 generations for traits considered beneficial to humans. Most of the elephants used by humans have been caught from the wild instead of bred in captivity.