Elephant, Asian

Billy the Asian elephant at the LA Zoo Photo Credit Tad Motoyama

Scientific Name: Elephas maximus indicus

The elephant is the world’s largest living land mammal. Known for their intelligence and social behavior, these pachyderms can communicate with each other using infrasound over a distance of more than two miles.

An Elephant’s Greatest Tool

What animal can put its nose in its ear? The elephant can! Its trunk is an elongation of its nose and upper lip. The extremely flexible, muscular, and sensitive trunk is used in many ways: breathing, touching, smelling, bringing food to the mouth, spraying the body with water or dust, scratching, trumpeting, and moving objects. While swimming, an elephant can breathe through its trunk, held above the water much like a snorkel. Baby elephants even suck on their trunks just as human babies suck their thumbs. However, elephants cannot drink directly through their trunks. Rather, water is drawn into the trunk like a straw, raised to the mouth, and then squirted out the nostrils. An elephant can draw up to two gallons of water into its trunk.

Asian elephants are listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Elephants have been hunted illegally for their tusks (ivory), and much of their habitat has been destroyed. The Los Angeles Zoo participates in an Elephant Species Survival Plan.

Asian elephants are found in forests and grasslands of India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia.

Elephants eat grasses, shrubs, fruits, vegetables, and bark. Each day, they may consume 300 pounds of food and spend 18 to 20 hours foraging and eating.

Males grow up to 11 feet tall and weigh six tons. Females are generally smaller. Compared to African elephants, Asian elephants are smaller overall with smaller ears. They have just one “finger” on the tip of the trunk (Africans have two). Their foreheads are more rounded with two “lobes,” and their backs are more arched. Their skin is less wrinkled and may appear browner. Whereas most male and female African elephants have tusks, only male Asians have tusks; female Asians have small, rudimentary “tushes.”

Strong, column-like limbs and massive bones support an elephant’s weight. The toes are cushioned by an elastic pad on each foot which expands under weight and contracts when weight is removed so that the foot may be withdrawn from muddy ground more easily. Elephants use their ears for hearing, communication, and cooling. Their ridged cheek teeth grind up coarse vegetation. Most males have a pair of tusks which are actually ever-growing upper incisors. The elephant possesses six sets of large molars in each half of each jaw, with four molars functional at a time. As molars wear down, new ones replace them and the old teeth fall out.

Elephants mature at nine to 14 years old. Females have one calf every four years. Pregnancy lasts for an amazing 21 to 22 months! Cows stay with the herd for life. However, bulls leave because they enter a condition called musth for the first time at about 20 years old. During musth, their testosterone levels are higher, glands on the sides of the head discharge an aromatic, sticky secretion, and they become more aggressive as they search for potential mates.

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