elephant

Introduction

elephant, largest living land mammal, found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Elephants have massive bodies and heads, thick, pillarlike legs, and broad, short padded feet, with toes bearing heavy, hooflike nails. The gray skin is loose, tough, thick, and nearly hairless. The slender tail ends in a tuft of hair. The upper lip and nose are elongated into a flexible trunk, or proboscis, reaching nearly to the ground; this sensitive appendage is used for picking up food, feeding from trees and other sources, and drawing up water. Elephants drink by sucking water into the trunk and squirting it into the mouth; they also use the trunk to spray themselves with water and with dust. The trunk produces a variety of noises, including a loud trumpeting. African elephants also have been shown to use infrasonic frequencies (those below the range of human hearing) for communication. The large, thin, floppy ears provide an extensive cooling surface; the animal flaps its ears vigorously when it is overheated. The upper incisor teeth are elongated into tusks—highly valued for their ivory—which the animal uses for digging up roots and tubers. A gland between the eye and the ear periodically produces an oily substance called musth; during these periods the animal is in an excitable, dangerous condition, also called musth, meaning madness. Such a condition occurs more often in males than in females and is thought to be a state of sexual excitement.

Elephants are browsing animals, feeding on fruits, leaves, shoots, and tall grasses; they consume hundreds of pounds of food a day and drink up to 50 gal (190 liters) of water. They have no fixed living place, but travel about in herds of up to 100 animals, led by a young, strong male and including young bulls (males), cows (females), and calves. Old males are generally solitary or live in small groups. A rogue elephant is a solitary old male that has become violent and dangerous. During the mating season, elephant pairs may live away from the herd for a few weeks. A single calf is born after a gestation of 18 to 22 months and is nursed for 5 years. Elephants reach maturity at between 15 and 25 years of age; their lifespan is usually 60 or 70 years. Elephants walk at a pace of about 4 mi (6.4 km) per hr, but can charge at speeds of 30 mi (48 km) per hr. They cannot jump and so cannot pass barriers too wide or too high to step over; they swim well, however.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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