The Complete Elephant Anatomy
The elephants body is well adapted for the survival of rugged conditions of their habitats in Africa and Asia.
Elephants have strong, long trunks that perform multiple tasks, sharp tusks used for carrying heavy objects and for fighting with, large ears which they flap to keep themselves cool as well as having other functions. Elephants also have a tail that with one swish can whisk away flies and other insects making it the perfect fly swatter.
On the left is an anatomy diagram of the internal organs of a female elephant. Click on the image for a larger look at it.
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Below you can see some distinct differences between the African elephant and the Asian elephants body structures. The African is larger, with much larger ears and larger all round in height and length. For more detailed information on either the African Elephant or the Asian Elephant, click on the individual images in the picture below.
One of the most interesting features of an elephant is its trunk. An elephants trunk is both an upper lip and an extension of the nose with two nostrils running through the whole length.
The trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it which is more than a human has in their whole body. A human being only has 639 muscles in total. An elephants trunk is both strong and very agile. It can perform multiple tasks from pushing over heavy trees to picking up the smallest twig. An elephant uses its trunk to pick up and throw objects, rub an itchy eye or ear, fills it with water and then pours it into its mouth to drink and also as a snorkel when swimming under water. Elephants also use it for feeding and for friendly wrestling matches with other elephants.
The trunk plays an important role in an elephants life by being used as an exploratory organ. The trunk is extremely flexible and can be used with the finest touch. At the first sign of danger, an elephant raises its trunk to smell the air and detect the smell of what is threatening. An elephant uses a whole range of smelling tasks as it is one of the elephants primary sensory organs, along with the ears. An elephants trunk is so important and vital to its life that it would be almost impossible for the elephant to survive should it ever get damaged.
Most animals use their nose solely for breathing, however, the elephant also uses its trunk for water storage and for drawing in mud and dust to spray over themselves to clean or cool down. An average elephant can hold and store 4 litres of water inside its trunk. The trunk has a sparse covering of fine sensory hairs and the skin covering the front of the trunk has rings of deep crevasses and resembles a slinky.
The African elephant has two prehensile fingers at the tip of its trunk which are used to grab hold of objects and smaller items. The Asian elephant has only one finger at the end of its trunk and usually only uses its trunk to scoop things up. Elephants can lift very heavy weights with its trunk, but it is important to remember that each elephant is individual and unique and the amount of weight each can lift varies. The trunk is not usually used in combat or for fighting with, but it can be used to make threatening gestures. However, elephants do use their trunks to play fight which can be quite interesting to observe.
Another interesting observation is when an elephant is charging. If its trunk is stretched out in front, then the elephant is just bluffing. However, it the trunk is curled or tucked downwards then it means business and is serious about its intentions. Like all vertebrates, elephants possess the Jacobson’s organ in its mouth (a smelling organ).
The elephant tests and experiments with different odours by touching a particular object with its trunk and then placing the trunk in its mouth. Elephants are very inquisitive creatures.
Elephant tusks are very elongated incisor teeth. Elephants do not have any canine teeth at all. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, however, only the male species of the Asian elephant has them. Tusks continue growing for most of the elephants life. They are an age indicator – much like the elephants feet, the age of the elephant can be estimated by observing their tusks. The size of an elephants tusks is an inherited characteristic, however, because of ivory hunters, it would be quite rare today to find and elephant whose tusks weigh more than 100 pounds.
The total length of the tusks is not apparent on the outside of the elephant, about a third of the length of the tusk lies hidden inside the elephants skull. This is the unfortunate reason ivory hunters destroy the elephant for their tusks instead of just cutting them off. Ivory is really only dentine and is no different from ordinary teeth. It is the diamond shaped pattern of the elephants tusk which can be distinguished when viewed from a cross-section which gives elephant ivory its distinctive lustre.
Elephants are either ‘left-tusked’ or ‘right-tusked’, just like a human being might be ‘left-handed’ or ‘right-handed’. The favoured tusk is usually shorter than the other due to constant use. Tusks on an individual elephant can differ in shape, length, thickness and growth direction. Male elephants tend to have heavier, longer and more stouter tusks than females do.
An elephant uses its tusks to many many tasks just like its trunk. They use their tusks for digging, ripping bark of trees, foraging, carrying heavy objects and for resting a wary, heavy trunk on. They will also use them as weapons should they ever encounter conflict.
Tusks in a baby elephant (Calf) are present at birth and are really only like milk teeth. They measure only about 5 centimetres long. These ‘milk tusks’ will fall out around their first birthday. Their permanent tusks will then start to protrude beyond their lips at around 2 – 3 years old and will continue to grow throughout their lives.
Tusks grow at about 15 – 18 centimetres per year, however, they are continually worn down with constant use. Should they be allowed to continually grow without use, they would grow into a spiral shape (similar to those of the extinct woolly mammoth) as they typically grow following a curved growth pattern.
Interestingly, some elephants are born without tusks. This hereditary condition causes huge differences in the musculature and shape of the neck and the head of the elephant. Also, the carriage of the head is different and the bones at the back of the skull are less developed.
Not all male Asian elephants have tusks, there is approximately 40 – 50% of male Asian elephants that are tuskless. These particular males are known as ‘Makhnas‘ in India.
An elephants teeth are very unique in the manner in which they proceed from the back of each half jaw towards the front. The teeth follow a linear progression. As the front teeth continuously become more worn down they are slowly replaced with new teeth that give the elephant an ability to chew the coarse foods it eats particularly tree bark. The elephant has a total of 24 teeth, but only 2 are usually in use at any one time.
When an elephant is born, a calf has four developing teeth in each side of its jaws. These consist of their smallish first and second teeth which are present after birth and the end of a third and a forth which is still below the gum. As each tooth wears out, it is pushed forward to the front of the mouth and it slowly wears into a shelf as the roots are absorbed. The shelf eventually will break off and the remaining piece will be pushed out of the mouth.
After the first two teeth are gone, parts of the two adjacent teeth are being worn down in each half of the jaw. This process continues until the 6th and sometimes 7th molar appears. The 6th molar weighs on average an incredible 4 kilograms and has a maximum grinding length of 21 centimetres (and a width of 7 centimetres). This 6th molar will be present for around half the elephants life. When the last molar tooth is worn down and the elephant can no longer chew properly, unfortunately it will usually starve or develop malnutrition and eventually die. This does not happen until the elephant is at least 60 – 70 years old. Below is a table showing the onset and loss of each tooth and age the above process usually occurs:
Molar Molar Appearance Molar Loss 1 At birth 2 years old 2 At birth 6 years old 3 1 year old 13 – 15 years old 4 6 years old 28 years old 5 18 years old 43 years old 6 30 years old 65 years old +
The molars of an elephant differ between the African and Asian species. Both have a series of ridges (laminae) which run across the tooth. However, in the Asian elephant the ridges are parallel as opposed to the diamond shaped ridges in the African elephant. Although the Asian elephant has grazing teeth, it is usually spends most of its time in forests as opposed to plains like the African elephant.
In both species of elephant, the movement of the jaw during chewing is forwards and backwards, unlike cows who use sideways movements to chew their cud. Therefore, the ridges act as two rasps grating upon one another and is made more effective by the teeth being slightly curved along the lengths.
The brain of the elephant is larger than any other land mammal and is located in the back of the skull well away from the forehead. An elephants brain is about four times the size of a humans brain. (See diagram on the left). Out of all the animals that have ever lived on earth, the brain of the elephant is the largest known.
Elephants are born with 35% of the mass of the adult brain. The elephant is among the more intelligent animals. The brain weight of the male African elephant is 4.2-5.4 kilograms. The brain weight of the female African elephant is 3.6 – 4.3 kilograms. Both are quite heavy in comparison to the adult human brain although brain development in elephants is quite similar to that of human beings.
Humans are born with small brain mass, so are elephants. As a human brain grows and develops, so does an elephant calfs brain. Likewise, the learning ability of a human increases with growth, so does that of an elephant calf. It is not surprising that elephants are such intelligent creatures. Although the female elephant brain is smaller than the male elephant brain, this does not suggest that the male is more intelligent than the female. Studies have revealed that the female elephant is equal to or even more intelligent than the male. Given the fact that female elephants are generally smaller to male elephants, the brain mass in proportion to the body size indicates the larger female brain.
Also, the brain and consciousness of the female elephant is much different than that of a male as they are reared and interact with their mothers in very different ways right from birth and while the females form a very close knit bond with each other which is constantly maintained, the males are more solitary and independent.
Although the brain of the elephant is the largest in size among all of the land mammals, it actually only occupies a small area at the back of the skull. However, in proportion to the size of the elephants body, the elephant brain is smaller than the human brain. Despite this, the elephant is one of the only animals along with all apes (including ourselves), sperm whales and a few other creatures who has a large brain relative to body size.
Although elephants are generally considered hairless animals, both African and Asian elephants are born with thick hair. The elephant fetus is covered with ‘Lanugo’, a mass of long, downy hair, however, most of this is shed before the elephant is actually born. The hair on an elephant calf sheds more as the elephant calf grows. The hair is not designed to provide warmth for the elephant, however, it does allow the elephant to sense the closeness of objects the hair touches.
The hair on an elephant is thickest on the tail and more visible on the head and back. The hair on the tail can reach a length of up to 100 centimetres.
The hair that appears around the eyes and nose have a protection purpose. It helps to keep out particles and germs from invading the body through the ears and nose. An elephant also has small sensory hairs along its trunk.
Baby elephants (calves) have lots of small fine hairs that cover most of their body. In the photo on the left, you can see the fine hair on the calfs forehead and lower back. These hairs will last in the same density long after the elephants first birthday and then as the elephant grows the hair will gradually become thinner and become less visible.
The African elephant has ears that are at least 3 times the size of the Asian elephants ears. The African elephant uses its ears as signaling organs. Ears are also used to regulate body temperature and are used as a protective feature in the African elephant to ward off potential threats. Each elephants ear is unique and different to any other elephants ear. They are used just like fingerprints on a human as a type of identification. The ears serve several important functions in the elephant. When a threat is perceived by the elephant, the ears are spread wide on each side of the head, which produces a huge frontal area.
Because the elephant is such a large bulbous shape and contains large organs, their insides generate a lot of heat, particularly the digestive system. The surface area of an elephant is a lower ratio compared to the elephants volume. Therefore, there is not enough skin area to cope with the heat that needs expelling. So elephants use their ears to perform this function. When an elephant flaps its ears, it can lower their blood temperature by 10 degrees Fahrenheit . Both the African and Asian elephants use their ears for this purpose although it is more effective in the African elephant due to the larger ears.
The wider surface area of outer ear tissue on the African elephants ears consists of a vast network of capillaries and veins. Hot blood in the arteries are filtered through these and cooler blood is returned to the elephants body.
It is not uncommon to see an elephant facing down on a windy day with its ears extended to allow the cool wind to blow across the hot arteries. The physical structure of the elephant ear is simply a sheet of cartilage covered by thin skin. Another amazing function of the elephant ear is its ‘infra sound capabilities’. This is used for long range communication between the elephants. Elephant ears are extremely sensitive and studies have proved that elephants can communicate over great distances with each other. Elephants can use this communication which is unhearing to human ears to warn of impending dangers in the far distance. So do not forget, if you have the opportunity to ever touch the ears of an elephant, be very careful as they are very soft and sensitive.
Elephants feet are unique and very interesting. They are quite different from other animal feet. An elephants foot is designed in such a way that elephants actually walk on the tips of their toes. Because of the way it walks, elephants are also known as ‘Digitigrades’ and belong to a group of animals that also includes horses, cattle, sheep, camels and rhinos. All elephants do not have the same number of toes on each foot. The African elephants have 4 toes on their front feet and 3 toes on their back feet. Asian elephants on the other hand, have 5 on the front and 4 at the back.
Elephants toes are buried inside of the flesh of the foot and not all toes have toenails. An elephants foot generally measures 40 – 50 centimetres in length and width and has a circumference of about 1.34 metres. The sole of an elephants foot is made of a tough, fatty connective tissue which acts like a spongy shock absorber and allows the elephant to move about silently.
The sole of the foot is also ridged and pitted which gives the elephant stability when walking over a variety of terrains. Its design prevents the elephant from slipping on smooth surfaces such as ice and snow. The reason that elephants can walk so quietly is in part due to the ‘elastic spongy cushion’ on the bottom of the foot smothering any objects beneath itself. This causes most noises (including the cracking of sticks and twigs) to be muffled.
The fore feet of an elephant have a circular shape whereas the back feet are a more oval shape. The footprint of an elephant can tell you a few things about that particular elephant. For example, elongated oval footprints usually indicates that they belong to a male elephant, whereas a more rounded footprint indicates a female elephant. Male elephants tend to leave double footprints as their rear leg falls slightly to the side of their front leg. Females tend to walk more precisely in the same spot with both legs.
The footprint can also tell you what age the elephant might be. Younger elephants leave a more crisp and defined footprint. Older elephants leave a more undefined footprint because of smoother ridges and worn heels. The height of the elephant can also be determined by its footprint. Twice the circumference of the footprint suggests how tall the elephant is to the height of its shoulder. Elephants footprints can play a beneficial role for other animals. Their large, deep prints create holes in which water can be collected in providing water holes for small animals, roots can be dug up from the ground and navigation on difficult terrain can be made easier.
The structure of the foot allows an elephant to walk in deep mud without difficulty, because when it is being withdrawn the circumference becomes smaller which in turn reduces the suction preventing the elephant from being drawn deeper into the mud.
Although elephants belong to the Pachyderm species which means ‘thick-skinned’ animals, they actually have very thin skin except in certain places such as the back and the sides where it is about 2 – 3 centimetres thick. The thinnest parts of skin are behind their ears, around their eyes, on the chest, abdomen and shoulders. On these parts, their skin is as thin as paper. Skin provides a protective function for all animals, however, there are some unique characteristics about the elephants skin. Elephants skin is very sensitive to the sun. Elephant calves are constantly shadowed by their mothers to avoid sunburn.
Elephants naturally love water, however, one of the reasons they enjoy wallowing in mud, lakes and rivers is to keep cool when it is very hot. Elephants also use their trunks to draw up cool water and squirt it over their backs and heads to wet the skin most exposed to the sunlight. The absence of sweat glands is also another important reason for elephants to spend a lot of time in water and mud.
An elephants skin is so sensitive and rich in nerves that it can detect even the smallest fly landing upon it. As we all know, elephants skin is very wrinkly. These wrinkles have their purpose too. They help the elephant in controlling its body temperature and keeping itself cool.
Wrinkles increase the surface area of the skin so when the elephant bathes in water, there is more skin to wet. When the elephant comes out of the water, the cracks and crevices of the wrinkles trap the water and because it takes longer to evaporate in the heat it keeps the elephants skin moist longer than it would if it had smooth skin.
Skin structure on an elephant can also distinguish whether they are Asian or African. Asian elephants have finer skin than African elephants and it is sometimes colourless except for some ‘white spots’ around the ears and forehead.
The natural skin colour of the African elephant is greyish black, but all elephant skin colour changes and is determined by the colour of the soil of the land where their habitat is. Elephants have a habit of throwing mud over their backs and this gives them their apparent colouring.
Elephant Senses and Communication
By better understanding an elephants view of the world we can become more aware of how amazing these animals really are. As human beings, the impact our senses have on the nature of our experiences such as what we see, hear, smell and touch, play a huge part in determining our world. Likewise, it is important that we recognize the world of an elephant is much different from our world. For instance, the eyesight of an elephant is not as far reaching as a humans eyesight, however, an elephants sense of smell is unparalleled. The elephants acute sense of smell is also used in communication along with its other senses of vision, touch, hearing and the amazing ability to detect vibrations.
An elephant is capable of hearing sound waves well below the human hearing limitation. They communicate using both high and low frequency sounds. Low frequency rumbles are made to warn other elephants at long distance of a current situation whereas high frequency sounds such as trumpeting, barking, snorting and other loud calls are used to communicate to those nearer.
Using their heads, bodies, trunks, ears and tail for communicating is the elephants natural language. Visual communication includes movements of the head, mouth, tusks and trunk. For example, when a female elephant feels threatened, she will make herself appear larger by holding her head as high as she can and spreading her ears wide. Chemical communication is the use of the trunk. The elephant will lift its trunk to smell the air or root around the floor usually searching for urine spots and urine trails.
Tactile communication usually involves the whole body, feet, tail, ears, trunk and tusks and is mostly to do with touch. An elephant will use its tusks to provoke aggression or to lift a baby elephant out of a mud wallow. The rubbing together of ears shows affection. Depending on how the elephant moves and uses its body parts depicts the mood of the animal. Such moods and body movements show if the elephant is angry, happy, anti-predator, parental, excited or sad. Every observation of the elephant senses shows an insight to the world the elephant lives in. It is important to remember that the elephants world is a completely different world from ours based on its sensory experiences.