Intriguing Facts About Elephants

What is a baby elephant called?

Baby elephants are called calves.


How long is elephant gestation?

Elephants have one of the longest known gestations of any animal. African elephants have a gestation period of 22 months, while Asian elephants have a gestation period of 18-22 months. Elephants will typically only give birth two or three times in a decade, and young elephants may suckle for a few years.


What do elephants use their tusks for?

Tusks are actually hugely elongated upper incisor teeth embedded deep in the elephant’s head (up to a third of a tusk is hidden from view). Elephant tusks have a variety of uses: as a tool to dig for food or water and to strip bark from trees; as a weapon in battles with rivals; and as a courtship aid – the larger his tusks, the more attractive a male elephant may appear to a female.


Can elephants be right or left-tusked?

Yes. Just as humans are right- or left-handed, elephants are known to use one tusk more than the other. This favoured appendage is sometimes referred to as the ‘master tusk’ and often appears more worn.


Do female elephants have tusks?

Male and female African elephants naturally have tusks, but only male Asian elephants grow them. However, this is changing, and an increasing number of African elephants are being born without tusks. Those that do still have tusks have much smaller tusks than in the past – the average size has halved in the last century.

Why are elephant tusks getting smaller? Because of ivory. The elephants with the biggest tusks are most likely to be targeted, so they aren’t able to pass on their big-tusk genes to future generations.


How long do elephants live for?

African elephants have a lifespan of up to 70 years in the wild, but tend not to live quite so long in captivity. Asian elephants have a shorter lifespan of around 48 years.


Do elephants live alone or in groups?

Both African and Asian elephants form female-led, tight-knit groups consisting of a dominant matriarch, her female offspring and other female relations plus their calves. Occasionally, groups of elephants will allow ‘strangers’ to join them. Living in groups makes individuals safer and allows them to devote more time to caring for and teaching the young.


Do elephants recognise their reflections?

Elephants can recognise themselves in mirrors. Scientists believe this is a sign of greater self-awareness. In one study, an Asian elephant called Happy repeatedly touched an ‘X’ painted on her forehead while looking in the mirror, an indication that she knew she was looking at her own reflection. Most animals will assume that a reflection is another animal, and look for it behind the mirror.


Do baby elephants suck their trunks?

Yes they do! As in all young mammals, an elephant calf’s sucking reflex, which prompts it to drink from its mother’s breast, is strong. And when a youngster is not feeding, it may suck its trunk for comfort, just as a human baby would suck its thumb.

Newborn elephants have little control over their trunks and must learn how to use them. They practise by exploring their environment – touching fellow herd members, their surroundings and themselves. They must then master the use of their trunks for feeding. With more than 50,000 individual muscle units in the trunk, it’s a complex skill to learn.

Though trunk-sucking is more common in the early stages of life, elephants of all ages do it, even big old bulls, usually when they are feeling nervous or unsure.

Sometimes an elephant that appears to be sucking its trunk is actually using it to smell, placing the tip inside its mouth after touching or sniffing dung or urine to assess pheromones produced by other elephants.


How good is an elephant’s memory?

Elephants have amazing long-term memories. Scientists studying three herds in Tanzania found that, during a lengthy drought, the two herds led by older matriarchs left the drought area in search of water, and more of their group survived as a result. The scientists concluded that these older females had remembered a drought that had occurred more than 30 years earlier and knew what to do. One female elephant also recognised zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton even though she hadn’t seen him for four years.


Can elephants feel empathy?

Elephants appear to understand what other elephants are feeling. Experiments show that when one elephant is unhappy, others share their feelings, something known as ‘emotional contagion’. In these situations, they will go over to their ‘friend’ and comfort them, often by putting their trunk into the other’s mouth, something that elephants find reassuring.