An Overview On The Behaviour Of Elephants Biology Essay

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Elephants are the largest and heaviest land mammal on Earth. There are two species of elephants, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and then the African elephant (Loxodonta Africana). Sub species also occur within both species and are named after the habitats they are found. The Asian elephants have 4 definite sub species and there are tests been run on a possible fifth sub species in Vietnam & Laos. The 4 sub species are the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatrensis) and the Borneo/pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis). The African elephant species have 2 sub species which are the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis).

The easiest way to distinguish the species of an elephant is by comparing the ears. The African elephants have large ears and are similar to the shape of the African continent (Fig 1). The Asian elephants have smaller ears and are a similar shape to the sub continent of India. (Fig 2)

The other differences between the species are:

African elephant Asian elephant

Longer legs Shorter legs

Dip in back Arched back

Male & female have tusks Usually only males have tusks

Both species & sub species live in a variety of habitats. Habitats range from forests, grasslands, savannahs, and deserts. Elephants are nomadic and will not stay in one location for a prolonged time as they migrate hundreds of kilometres in search of food and water. The climates of these habitats are sometimes tropical/sub tropical. Elephants are herbivores and only eat vegetation, up to 300kgs per day or 10% of their bodyweight, and they consume 100 to 300 litres of water a day. The elephant also seeks out salt as it often struggles to get a sufficient amount from the vegetation it consumes. They will seek out soil and rocks which contain salts and eat to satisfy their salt appetite. The elephant is a keystone species. This means that the health of the ecosystem is influenced by elephants. This is due to the elephant preventing succession of grasslands to forests. If succession occurred then a variety of species would decline as their habitat and food source would become compromised or lost. Elephants also dig water holes which are used by many species. Many plants would not be able to distribute their seeds without the elephant as the seeds are too large or thick for other animals to disperse. Elephant dung also gives back nutrients to depleted soils and provides a habitat for dung beetles to reproduce. If elephants became extinct this would have a massive

effect on the existing ecosystem. The elephant has no true predators but sometimes a young or injured elephants may be targeted by large cats.

The senses the elephant use are sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. The trunk is used for smell and for touch. Its smell is so sensitive it can smell human scent from over 1.5km away (Barbara Taylor 1999). The trunk is used for a variety of tasks. It is obviously used for smell, for gathering food, high or low, it is used to collect water like a straw, it is used as a snorkel when required, it is used to clean itself or cool itself down with dust/water and it is used to lift heavy objects. The tip of the trunk is used to investigate and can sense hot and cold, rough and smooth. Touch is used between elephants when they meet & greet and for reassurance to their young. Communication between elephants is mainly through low rumbling sounds that are too low a frequency for humans to hear. These low sounds are known as infrasound. Elephants can hear the infrasound of other elephants from about 8km away. The ears are used as a form of communication too. They flap their ears to spread scent and they position their ears and trunk to indicate to each other. The ears are also used to make the elephant look larger when needed and are also flapped to cool the elephant. African elephants have perhaps evolved with larger ears than Asian elephants as the plains of Africa are hotter than the forest habitats of Asia. Sight in direct sunlight is not great for elephants; they prefer darker, shaded forest conditions. Elephants are also colour blind. The skin of an elephant is wrinkly which helps to keep it cool. This is because the surface area of the skin is greater and absorbs more water and stores the moisture in the cracks and creases. This all helps to slow down the evaporation of the water. The skin is very sensitive to sunburn and insect bites so this is why elephants like to cover themselves in mud and dust. The feet of elephants are made of fatty, fibrous tissues which cushion the impact as it walks. Elephants, although huge, orienteer rather silently. The feet are digitigrades, which means the elephant is walking on the tips of its toes. The tusks of an elephant are in fact its front teeth. The tusks are used as tools for moving, carrying and collecting such things as vegetation. They are also used as weapons to protect themselves or to establish dominance between each other. Elephants are known to have great memory and are highly intelligent. Elephants remember others they encounter for years, even if they’ve only met several times. Elephants are considered intelligent as they show an awareness and understanding of their surroundings. They can reason and plan ahead such as when casting a shadow over their young. Elephants have been observed to learn behaviour. An example of learned behaviour is seen by Eleanor, a Kenyan elephant that was orphaned when young and was reared by Daphne Sheldrick who fostered orphaned animals. Eleanor learned to open latches on the barn where the food was stored. She could also turn on taps, which is rather impressive (Ian Redmond 1997). Working elephants are able to learn commands and perform work duties. Elephants also mourn their dead and perform a sort of ritual where they cover the dead body or smash up their bones.

The evolution of mammals occurred 180 million years ago. About 50 to 60 million years ago proboscideans evolved. Proboscideans are the order of animals which have trunks. Only two species of animals now belong to this order, the African elephant and the Asian elephant. The closet living relatives of the elephant are considered to be the Hyraxes, the Manatees and the Dugongs.

Classification of modern elephants: ( 2010)

Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: ChordataClass: Mammalia (mammals) Subclass Eutheria (Placental mammals) Order: Proboscidae Genus: Elephas species: maximus (Asian elephants) Genus: Loxodonta species: cyclotis (African forest elephants) species: africana (African savanna elephants).


This chart is derived from the book

Elephants by J. Shoshani 

Elephants have been a successful species to present, but now face a threat to their survival. Hunting is a major threat to elephants as they are mainly hunted for their ivory. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was established in the 1960s as a voluntary international resolution to protect species from over exploitation. This has helped to counter the effects of poaching elephants for ivory and its other parts. In 1989 elephants were classed as critically endangered. In 1990 a complete ban in the trade of ivory was declared. Another reason for hunting elephants was the prize or trophy reward of such an animal. Now this problem of trophy hunters has been countered by elephant reserves offering game hunters the chance to cull the elephants, when required, for a fee. The culling would need doing anyway and the monies charged for this all goes back in to helping to conserve the elephant reserves. Another result of poaching elephants, in particular the matriarchs or older elephants with greater tusks is that when they are killed, the knowledge of migratory routes is lost. Younger elephants will have not learnt when and where to go for the search of food and water.

As hunting is a major threat to the survival of elephants, so is habitat loss. As the human population continues to grow it puts greater pressures on the elephant’s natural environment. Land which was once used by elephants has now been claimed by humans and is used for farming or for development of villages. There is a conflict between the landowners and elephants as the elephants often destroy/take advantage of the crops that are growing there. Some landowners tolerate this and try to mitigate this by putting deterrents up to stop the elephants. Other landowners or villages just kill the elephants as they consider them pests. As mentioned previously the elephant is a keystone species and the protection of elephants is a major concern for many conservation organisations. Ecotourism is helping to conserve elephants as governments afford more protected areas and legislations due to the economic benefits of tourists visiting to see elephants.

The behaviour of elephants in the wild varies between the females and males. Males are solitary and only join in the group for mating. The bulls have a dominance order regarding mating. Females and young stay together as a group and follow and learn from the matriarchs. The lifespan of elephants is up to 70 years of age. The breeding age of elephants is about 15 years. The gestation period is 22 months.

Humans have interfered with elephants in negative and positive ways. Reserves have been created to help conserve elephants. Human interference has resulted in working relationships. In some parts of the world it is more practical and cost effective to use elephants for labour. Elephants have been tamed and have learnt behaviours and skills, such as been ridden and directed into picking items up and moving them for our needs. Some elephants learn circus tricks and take part in painting etc. Elephants in captivity are now bred in captivity. This saves wild elephants been captured from the wild for zoological needs. These elephants will never be released into the wild as they have lost the knowledge of migration routes etc from nurturing elders.

A summary of the main points are: Elephants are a keystone species. They require a vast territory for migration needs. They live in a variety of habitats. They consume a vast amount of food and water. Touch and hearing are important senses for the elephant. They can communicate over many miles. They can live for up to 70 years. They were declared a critically endangered species in 1989. They are the only 2 species left within the proboscidae order. The pressures on their habitat will continue as human population grows. The lure of wealth from poaching ivory will always be an issue. Without ecotourism the protection of elephants would perhaps be of less importance to the governments associated.