Elephants are the world’s largest land mammals. Their sheer size is awe-inspiring. Elephants are the earth’s most beloved gentle giants. They have some awesome features like their large ears shaped like the map of Africa and long tusks. But you might not know some fun elephant facts, such as not every Asian elephant will grow a tusk? Only male Asian elephants grow tusks.
We have gathered 24 amazing elephant facts in this article so that you can learn some more incredible things about elephants. Also, check out our picks of the best elephant quotes and sayings to hear what others have to say about elephants - and inspire their protection.
In the African region, elephants are native to 37 countries5. Loxodonta Africana or African elephants range across West Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa. African savanna elephants spread across sub-Saharan Africa.
Asian elephants are native to the Southeast Asia and India regions2. Historical accounts reveal that Asian elephants or Elephas Maximus roamed across a range of 9 million square kilometers through a large part of Asia. Currently, only 5 percent of their historical range is available to elephants in Asia6 at just 500,000 square kilometers.
Generally, elephants will inhabit areas that have abundant vegetation and water. For Asian elephants, home can be anywhere in the tropical forests, including grasslands, scrub forests, moist deciduous forests, and tropical evergreen forests. Typically, elephants live in areas with sea-level elevation around 3,000 meters above sea level. But elephants in the Himalayan Mountains will sometimes move higher up in hot weather for cooler temperatures.
We find African elephants in savannas, grasslands, rain forests, woodlands, swamps, scrub forests, and highlands. Although not as common as other habitat choices, elephants also live in deserts and near beaches4.
The African elephant and the Asian elephant are the only two species of elephants still existing. African elephants are slightly bigger than their Asian cousins. They have somewhat bigger ears which is often the easiest way to differentiate between the two species at a glance. Furthermore, people note the shape of the Asian elephant's ears to look a bit like the map of India.
Asian elephant adults weigh between 6,000 and 12,000 pounds and stand 6 to 12 feet tall at the shoulder. The body length ranges from 18 to 20 feet. The African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) male adult weighs up to 6,100 kg and stands up to 13 feet at the shoulder.
In all elephant species, males are larger and curvier than females of the same age. Other differences between male and female elephants include tusk size, the width of the forehead, the shape of the head, and the shape of the back.
Wildlife biologists further divide the African elephant into two subspecies. We have the African savanna (bush) elephant and the African forest elephant7. The African savanna elephants are larger and have tusks that curve out, while the forest elephants have straighter downward-facing tusks. In addition to being smaller, the forest elephant has much darker skin and rounded ears.
The Asian elephant and African forest elephants grow to about the same size. Research estimates that the total African elephant population is one-quarter to one-third of forest elephants.
There are four recognized subspecies of Asian elephants, the Borneo subspecies, the Sri Lankan subspecies, the Sumatran subspecies, and the mainland subspecies. The Sri Lankan elephant is the biggest of all Asiatic elephants3.
The African and Asian elephants are the only surviving members of the scientific Order Proboscidea. Some time ago, the elephant's scientific family, 'Elephantidae', had 26 different species. They included species of the primelephas and Mammuthus genera like woolly mammoths. The closest living relatives to elephants are hyraxes and manatees.
Elephants are herbivores; they eat fruits, grasses, roots, and tree bark. They use the tusks on either side of their face to forage food. The African forest elephant seems to enjoy salt and will consume soil or other sources of sodium. Elephants can consume up to 136 kilograms of food and drink 113 to 190 liters of water daily.
Elephants have a large appetite, and so they spend a lot of time eating. Elephants spend most of their days roaming across long distances to find food. Elephants walk for 1 to 4 miles a day in search of food.
Mammals are known for having body hair, and elephants are no exception, even if they look bald all over. The skin of elephants ranges from greyish to brown colors. African elephants have thick grey creasy skin that's rough to touch. Their skin does not have much elasticity, and in most areas of the body, the skin is immobile. The areas of the elephant's skin that need to move a lot have bumps.
Elephants have hair spread across their body. Their body hair is sparse and has different lengths, textures, and colors. The hair around the elephant's eyes is long, and the thick long lashes prevent dust and other foreign objects from getting into their eyes. The hair found along their back and tail is dark and flattened.
Elephant calves have a different hair texture and color compared to adults. Their hair is softer and has lighter tones such as red or brown.
The elephant's body weighs a lot, with its legs designed to carry the weight easily. Unlike most mammals with legs in angular position, the elephant has columnar legs in an almost straight vertical arrangement under their bodies. This arrangement and their complex long bone structure provide strong support for the elephant's great weight.
The feet of an elephant have fibrous pads that cushion each step and acts as a shock absorber to protect the legs and toes from injury due to the heavy weight of the body. The vertical positioning of their legs allows elephants to remain standing for a long time without using up too much energy. It is also why elephants can sleep while standing even though they can sleep lying down.
The upper incisor teeth of elephants grow to be quite a prominent feature. We call the elongated teeth tusks, and they can be as long as 11 feet. The tusk is hollowed, and the hollow contains pulp with nerve tissues. Elephants have one-third of the tusk embedded in the cranium, and the remaining two-thirds are visible.
Both female and male African elephants have tusks, and the tusks never stop growing. In Asian elephants, only male Asian elephants have tusks, and not every male will get them. Most Asian elephants, however, do have small tusks, called tushes, which seldom protrude about an inch or two from the lip line.
Elephant tusks protect the elephant's trunk and work for self-defense. They use them to gather food, move objects, and strip bark from trees. Elephants even use their tusks to dig holes that allow them access to water during drought season. Individual elephants can be left or right-tusked, and the tusk they use the most are usually smaller because of wear and tear.
Elephants have a very long nose which we call a trunk formed by a fusion of the nose and upper lip. The nose has about 150,000 muscle units. Typically, animals only use noses for breathing and smelling, but the elephant uses its nose to do many other things.
They use their trunk to pour water into their mouths, communicate, and as an arm to grab objects or groom themselves. African elephants have two fingerlike extensions on the tip that are useful for holding onto small objects. An Asian elephant has just one. They can grab a single leaf or uproot whole trees with their trunks. When elephants swim in deep waters, they use their trunks as snorkels.
Elephants use their trunks as a grooming tool. They groom themselves by using their trunks to throw mud or water over their bodies. This keeps them cool during hot weather. The mud baths protect them from bugs and insect bites too. Furthermore, the mud acts as a sunscreen to ward off burns as, despite its apparent toughness, elephant skin is extremely sensitive.
Elephant ears are like giant cooling machines. There are many blood vessels in the ears, and when the elephant flaps its ears, the blood cools. The cool blood travels through the brain and the rest of the body, reducing body temperature by several degrees. The ear flapping also helps cool down their body surface.
Elephants are not quiet animals, they make a lot of noise, but they can communicate with low-frequency sounds that the human ears can not ordinarily pick up. The sounds are infrasonic sound waves with specific messages that only other elephants can hear and interpret.
These low-frequency sounds travel long distances, and an elephant can communicate with another elephant over two miles away using sound. Elephants warn herd members of dangers, and females in estrus can signal to adult elephant males with these low-frequency sounds.
Other ways by which they communicate include trumpeting, cries and snorts.
For elephants, the sense of smell is very important. Elephants can smell predators or other elephants over long distances. Elephants identify one another through scent. They can determine their sex and sexual maturity status by smelling their genitals, mouth, temporal gland, dung, or urine.
Another unusual way for elephants to communicate is through their feet. An elephant has Pacinian corpuscles in its feet to detect vibration from foot-stomping by another elephant or other causes.
Elephants have the largest brain of all terrestrial animals. The brain is large and weighs up to 6 kilograms. These animals don't just have a big brain for nothing; elephants are highly intelligent with excellent learning capacity. Much of an elephant's behavior is learned rather than instinctive.
Elephants have such excellent memories that they can remember watering holes they created years ago. They can even recognize humans they have seen before. They are aware of the time and season and will often arrive just in time for fruit harvests to begin.
Elephants show some mathematical abilities. Researchers attempted to train three Asian elephants to operate a touchscreen computer in Japan1. One of the three elephants chose a panel that displayed more fruits when presented with different quantities.
Because of their nomadic nature, elephants move around a lot, and sometimes a body of water stands in their way, but elephants are such splendid swimmers. Elephants are heavy but have enough buoyancy to stay afloat while using their powerful legs to paddle.
They submerge their bodies when crossing deep water, leaving only their trunk above the water surface. The trunk works as a snorkel, so they breathe normally even when submerged. Swimming is often necessary to cross rivers and lakes when searching for food. They are also adept at climbing hills and can run reasonably fast but not jump.
Although adult males sometimes live solitary lives, we often find them living in groups of three to four. The females are more social and live in small families of 5 to 20 individuals or 6 to 70 females in the case of African elephants. The families consist of several generations of closely related females and their calves. An older matriarch serves as the head.
Elephant families are supportive of their members. They care for the weak or injured ones and show signs of grief when a member dies. They are affectionate animals that show affection by frequently touching and caressing one another with their trunks.
Female elephants carry their unborn calves for about 22 months, which is far longer than any mammal carries their young for. Asiatic elephants bear one calf in 4 to 5 years, and female African elephants take 3 to 6 years. As soon as they are born, calves can stand.
Newborn African elephants weigh about 100kg on average. They feed on their mother's milk until they are about four months old; from then on, breastfeeding is an occasional occurrence till they are three years old. African elephants become independent at age 8, the males reach sexual maturity by 20 years, but females mature faster and are sexually mature at 11 years.
The young Asian elephant suckles on breast milk for about two years. At six months, they begin feeding on vegetation. They eat their mother's dung which has nutrients and symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion for several years. In zoos, an Asian elephant will mature a lot faster.
Elephants are big eaters, and their slow reproduction rate is excellent naturally because it keeps their population in check and conserves their food resources. However, their reproduction rate averages 5 to 6 percent yearly, and when you compare that to the 8 to 9 percent poaching rates, there is a net loss in population.
In the elephant community, caring for the young calves is a priority in the elephant community, and the females raise their young through cooperative efforts. A mother elephant is responsible for more than just her calf. The matriarch is responsible for teaching the young elephants all they need to know as she is the one with the most knowledge.
Young elephants must spend time with older family members, particularly the matriarch. This is so they can learn survival skills like how to forage for food and water and respond to dangers and obstacles. They also learn the locations of the clan's food resources and pathways.
Elephants are keystone species that help to maintain the biodiversity of their habitats. Their dung is full of seeds, and as they roam, it allows plants to spread to different parts of the environment. In the forests of central Africa, about 30 percent of tree species depend on elephants to help with dispersal and germination. Elephant dung also provides suitable habitat for dung beetles.
As they roam and feed, forest elephants uproot trees and eat saplings, which benefits zebras and other grazing animals. The path they create as they walk around allows other animals to enjoy accessible passageways.
The footprints of an elephant can fill up with water from rain or rivers and create habitats for organisms and other species like tadpoles. In the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds to get water. Their successful digs create watering holes other animals can drink from.
Like the tortoise, the elephant has a long life expectancy because they have almost no predators. Although young elephants are at risk from lions and crocodiles, the main predator for the world’s largest land animal is humans. The African elephant can live for up to 70 years in the wild. In captivity, their lifespan is an average of 65 years, but some reports say elephants have lived for up to 80 years in captivity.
Asian elephants live to be about 60 to 70 years old in the wild. The longest lifespan recorded for an Asian elephant was for a male elephant that lived to be 86 years old.
Time and time again, man has looked to the animal kingdom for labor. Elephants were used as beasts of burden not so long ago. The armies of the Persian Empire, the Indian subcontinent, and Alexander the Great used adult male elephants in their war efforts.
Elephants can carry loads weighing over 500 kg, and humans have taken advantage of that strength to transport heavy loads or plow fields.
People regard elephants as one of Africa’s ‘top five’ wildlife animals, and elephants are popular with tourists. The tourism industry benefits from using elephants as a carriage for visitors. Tourists can enjoy rides on the backs of elephants as they go sightseeing in the jungle. Communities that can manage the elephant population around them safely and humanely can benefit from tourism income.
The elephant's tusk is one of the most sought-after illegal wildlife goods. People make jewelry, musical instruments, and religious totems with illegally sourced tusks. A sophisticated network of traffickers runs the ivory tusks trade.
Killing elephants for trinkets seems like such a wasteful and inhumane thing to do. Experts say wild elephants may cease to exist in our lifetime if poaching is unchecked.
In 2021, the IUCN declared the African elephant an endangered species. Currently, there are only 415,000 living African elephants. Poaching and the illegal ivory trade are responsible for the decrease in the elephant population. Human-elephant conflict is also responsible for driving elephants toward extinction.
Numbering three to five million in the last century, hunting reduced the African elephant populations to their current levels. In the 1980s, people killed about 100,000 elephants each year, and we lost up to 80% of herds in some regions.
Humans have encroached on elephant habitats as the expanding human population has cleared off more forests and grasslands to build houses, farms, and factories. Because of human factors, elephants' habitat range shrank from three million square miles in 1979 to a little over one million square miles in 2007.
Although there are now protected areas or sanctuaries for wild elephants, these places are way smaller than what elephants naturally need. So we often find elephants too close to human settlements.
Also, industrial activities destroy wildlife and elephant habitats and make it even harder to reach elephant populations vulnerable to poachers.
If you feel sad that you missed out on seeing mammoths, think of how sad it will be for future generations if elephants also go extinct. Poaching for illegal ivory trade is the biggest threat to African elephants, while Asian elephants face a high risk of extinction due to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.
To help protect the world’s largest land mammal, support conservation groups and do not participate in the illegal trade of elephant tusks.
Naoko Irie et al (2019) Unique numerical competence of Asian elephants on the relative numerosity judgment task. Journal of Ethology. Volume 37, pages 111-115.
Asian elephant. Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
Elephants Scientific classification. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Incorporated.
Loxodonta africana. Animal Diversity Web
Elephant. African Wildlife Foundation
Elephas maximus. Animal Diversity Web
African elephant. World Wildlife Fund
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.