Physical characteristics

Size

African elephants weigh 200–265 lb (90–120 kg) at birth. Unlike other mammals, they continue to grow well into adult life. Females cease growth at 25–30 years, males at 35–45.  Fully-grown savannah elephants, L. a. africana, weigh 4–7 tonnes and measure 2.5–4m high at the shoulder. The have a concave, ‘saddle-shaped’ back. Forest elephants, L. a. cyclotis, weigh 2–4 tonnes, for a shoulder height of 1.8–3 m, and have a straighter back. In comparison with the Asian species (Elephas maximus) the head is less high and is single-domed; the ears are larger, and fold back at the top; and there are two ‘fingers’ at the end of the trunk. Both sexes possess tusks, those of the female being relatively smaller, whereas in the Asian species the females generally lack tusks.

Head

The elephant’s head is proportionately very large, weighing up to half a tonne; the neck is short. The body is supported on four extremely strong pillar-like legs. The elephant has five splayed toes buried within its foot, and stands on tip-toe; the first visible joint, some distance above the ground, is not the elbow or the knee, but the wrist or ankle. The foot contains a pad of springy tissue that causes the elephant’s foot to swell sideways when it bears the animal’s weight. The tail is long, extending to below the knee, and ends in a tuft of very coarse hairs. Otherwise, the body is sparsely covered by short hair, more pronounced in very young animals. As far as is known, there are no sweat glands. The ears are very large and thin, except for a thicker supporting ridge along the top. They are richly supplied with blood vessels for heat loss, and are flapped mainly for this purpose. The skin is a uniform gray. Elephants may take on brown or other hues after wallowing in mud.

Trunk

The elephant’s trunk is, anatomically, a fusion between its nose and upper lip. The trunk is remarkably sensitive, flexible, and manoeuvrable, as well as being immensely strong. It contains no bone or cartilage, but is principally composed of muscle, in eight main sets (four on each side) comprising a total of about 150,000 separately moveable muscle units. Two nostrils run the entire length of the trunk for breathing.

Tusks

The tusks are, anatomically, greatly expanded lateral incisor teeth. They are comprised almost entirely of dentine. About a third of their length is buried within a socket in the animal’s skull. The tusks are solid, except the upper part within the socket, where there is a pulp cavity. The tusks grow by addition of dentine there, pushing them out by up to 6in (15cm) a year. The tusks of a large bull can extend 79 in (200cm) in total length and weigh 110lb (50kg) each, although such figures are rare nowadays.