An elephant's world
Once upon a time – well, actually, about 60 million years ago now – the earliest known ancestor of the modern day elephants first appeared in northern Africa, in what we now call Morocco. From this first trunked mammal (we call them proboscideans), the group quickly diversified and spread throughout Africa and then around most of the world. Today, there remain only three species: the African savanna elephant, the African forest elephant, and their smaller cousin, the Asian elephant.
Where do elephants roam?
Historically, African elephants lived in areas south of the Sahara. Today they are restricted to forest, bush and savanna in parks and other protected areas, as people have moved into their former range to farm and to build places to live (check out the map on the African elephant collectible card).
The Asian elephant's story is similar--historic range was more extensive but its habitat was also lost and fragmented (split up). Today, the few remaining Asian elephants inhabit forested areas and the grass and scrub lands that border these pockets of forest in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
In the elephant family, females rule! Elephants live in a social hierarchy (social order or rank) dominated by older females. Adult females (cows) and female calves spend their entire lives together. They travel together in social units led by the matriarch--a single old and experienced female.
Males leave the herd when they become sexually mature in their teens and live alone or in small bachelor herds. Kin or bond groups are herds of related families that remain fairly close to one another. They may come together to form clans of 200 or more animals for short periods.
Since older elephants are targeted for their ivory, you can imagine how losing the matriarch disrupts and weakens the entire family!
The elephant's sense of community and family is strong and compelling--they mourn over their dead and have been seen sitting weeklong vigils by their bodies. Elephants are known to caress the teeth of a skull's lower jaw with their trunk, as they often do in a greeting. Some have been seen revisiting the bones of their dead for years afterward.
Do you know how to tell African and Asian elephants apart?
- The African elephant is larger than the Asian elephant and has larger, fan-like ears up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long! African elephants also have a concave curvature along their backs, and both males and females grow tusks.
- Asian elephants are generally smaller in size, have a rounded back and smoother trunk with one finger-like projection (lip) on the tip instead of two. Female Asian elephants don't grow tusks but smaller blunt protrusion called tushes!
How do elephants communicate?
Elephants are extremely intelligent animals. They communicate with each other by touch and smell as well as through vocalisations—grunting, whistling, bellowing, rumbling, trumpeting, and more.
Some elephant vocalisations are infrasound—sounds too low in pitch for the human ear to sense. Other elephants may hear these sounds from more than 5 miles (8 km) away. This may help separated groups coordinate their movements for weeks at a time without losing communication. Also, female elephants are only ready to breed every few years, so they may use infrasound to let males know when they’re available.
Elephants may also have the ability to warn each other of approaching dangers over long distances by stomping or rumbling, creating seismic waves (vibrations) in the ground which can travel nearly 20 miles (32 km)!
Whether it is their sheer size and power, their sense of family, their unique trunk, flapping ears and ivory tusks, or their well known loud trumpeting calls, elephants fascinate people!
Need an elephant photo for your activities or next lesson? Check out our World of elephants photo gallery »
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