Elephant, African


Loxodonta africana


Large ears, dark eyes, and long trunk.  Forehead is low and slants downward. Back slopes down behind the shoulders. The trunk has two finger-like projections on the end. The legs are massive and columnar. Skin is quite wrinkled. Males and females can have tusks. Males are between 11-13 feet tall, and weigh 10,000-13,000 lbs. Females are a bit smaller.

Family

Elephantidae

Order

Proboscidea

Class

Mammalia

Range

Africa south of the Sahara

Habitat

Savanna grasslands and forests

Life Expectancy

50-70 years

Sexual Maturity

9-11 years (can vary greatly)

Diet

In the wild, tree bark, grass, leaves, fruit, and domestic crops. In the Zoo, they are fed hay, grain, bran, fruits and vegetables.

Status

IUCN - Vulnerable, CITES – Appendix I, AZA - SSP

Behaviors

Most elephant populations show an annual reproductive cycle that corresponds to the seasonal availability of food and water. During the dry season, the population suffers a period of nutritional stress and cows cease to ovulate. When the rains break and the food supply improves, a period of one to two months of good feeding increases a female’s body fat levels above levels necessary for ovulation. Heat cycles typically run during the second half of the rainy season and the first months of the dry season. Gestation period is 20-22 months. Calves weigh between 200-250 lbs. at birth, and usually weigh more in captivity. Usually the oldest female is the leader of the matriarchal group. She knows the location of food, water, and salt licks. A typical family unit may consist of two or three sisters and their offspring, or one old cow and one or two adult daughters and their offspring. When female offspring reach maturity, they stay with their birth family. As the family unit grows, a subgroup of young adult cows gradually separates from the family unit. As a result, family units in the same area are often related. Bull calves usually leave the herd between 7-13 years of age, when they reach puberty. They may remain solitary, or form small groups. When males reach sexual maturity, they experience strong sexual aggression. This condition is called “musth.” Due to lack of social dominance in the wild, bulls may not mate until 25-30 years of age. Social bonds between family members are very strong. Cooperative behavior, particularly, in the protection and guidance of the young, is frequently observed. When a hazard is detected (for example human scent), the group bunches together with the calves in the center and the matriarch facing the direction of the threat. If one member is shot or wounded, the rest of the herd will come to its aid even in the face of considerable danger. The trunk is used in greetings, caressing and threatening behaviors as well as to help amplify vocalizations, all forms of communication within elephant society. Visual messages are conveyed by changes in posture and position of the tail, head, ears, and trunk. Elephants walk at 2.5 to 3.7 mph, but have been known to maintain double these speeds for several hours. A charging or fleeing elephant can reach 25 mph, which means over a short distance it can easily out run a human sprinter. In the wet season, African savanna elephants eat primarily grasses. They also eat small amounts of leaves from a wide range of trees and shrubs. After the rains have ended, the grasses have withered and died, they turn to feeding on the woody parts of trees and shrubs – twigs, branches, bark. They will also eat large quantities of flowers and fruits when available and dig for roots. Elephants cannot go long without water. Each one requires 19 to 24 gallons of fluid per day. At times of drought, they will dig holes in riverbeds with their trunks and tusks to find water. To avoid sunburn, they spend the middle part of their days resting under trees. In order to find enough food, water, and shade, elephants require large home ranges. These ranges, depending upon resource availability, vary between 290 to 617 square miles. They respond very quickly to rainfall, often travelling long distances (19 miles) to reach the spot of an isolated shower.

Adaptions

The neck of the elephant is too short to allow the mouth to reach the ground. The upper lip and the nose have become elongated and muscularized in elephants to form the trunk. It is extremely sensitive, with 8 large muscles on each side. There are approximately 150,000 clusters of muscles running throughout the trunk. Its primary purposes are for smelling, touching, and transferring food and water from the ground to the mouth. It is also used to spray water and dust on the skin to help protect it from insects and sunburn. The trunk is powerful enough to pick up a one ton log and yet sensitive enough to pick up something as tiny as a grain of rice. When crossing a river, the trunk can be used as a snorkeling device when the elephant is completely submerged. The enormous ears of the African elephants help to cool them. When the ears are moved back and forth, heat is radiated into the environment and their body temperature lowers dramatically. Hearing is exceptional. Some sounds are so low and deep that even the human ear cannot detect them. Vision is relatively good, but better in dim light. Legs and feet are very strong and powerful. The fatty padding surrounding the feet assists in distributing their massive weight. The tusks are elongated upper incisors that appear at about 2 years of age and grow throughout the lifetime of the elephant. By 60 years of age, a bull’s tusks may average 132 lbs. each and a cow’s 20 lbs. each. In very old individuals, tusks have been known to reach 287 lbs. and attain a length of 7.7 feet. Tusks are used during feeding, for removing bark from trees, and digging for roots. In social encounters, tusks are used as instruments of display or as weapons. The skin is 0.8 to 1.6 inches thick and sparsely endowed with hair. Despite the thickness, the skin is very sensitive and requires frequent bathing, massaging, and powdering with dust to keep it free from disease and parasites. Elephants have a non-ruminant digestive system similar to horses. Microbial fermentation takes place in the cecum, which is an enlarged sac at the junction of the small and large intestines.

Special Interests

In Swahili, the trunk is called mkono. Elephants are the largest living land mammals. The animals most closely related to elephants are the rock hyrax and the manatee. The largest known specimen killed in Angola in 1955 and now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, weighed 22,050 lbs. and measured 13.1 feet at the shoulder. Elephant ivory is a unique mixture of dentine (not the gum), cartilaginous material, and calcium salts. A transverse section through a tusk shows a regular diamond pattern not seen in the tusks any other mammal. If a herd matriarch is older than 50 years, she may be reproductively inactive. Survival over a long lifespan both requires and facilitates the acquisition of considerable experience. By continuing to guide her family unit long after she is too old to reproduce, she can enhance the survival of her offspring by providing them with the benefits of her accumulated knowledge of their home range, of seasonal water sources and food supplies, and of sources of danger and ways of avoiding them.

Folklore

Up until the seventeenth century, people thought that if an elephant was tired, it could not lie down, but would lean against a strong tree instead. If the tree broke, the elephant would not get up again. When there was a full moon, elephants gathered tree branches and moved them towards the sky with their trunks at the same time to pay homage to the Queen of the Night.

Conservation

Although lions or hyenas often kill young elephants, the elephant’s most dangerous predator is man. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens supports the work of conservation organizations such as 96 Elephants.

Jacksonville Zoo History

The first African elephants to arrive at Jacksonville Zoological Gardens were a young pair in September 1967. The male, “Tantar”, has been at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, for many years. There he is known as “Macho.” Our current collection includes one bull, Ali, donated to the Zoo by Michael Jackson, and two cows - Sheena and Thandi.

Exhibit

East African Exhibit Area