Every time I go to the zoo I stand and watch the elephants for quite a long time, and I voraciously read the facts about elephants that are on the signs near the elephant pens. As you can tell, I find elephants to be fascinating creatures. My fascination probably stems from the opportunity I had when I was in third grade to have a behind the scenes tour of the San Diego Zoo. As part of the tour I was able to see the elephants being fed by their caretakers, and I was able to go inside the refrigerator that held the food for elephants. Needless to say, it was a memorable experience, and since that time I have learned many facts about elephants that I would like to share with you.
1. Matriarchal Herds
One of my favorite facts about elephants is that they live in matriarchal herds. Each herd consists of a family group of related females, with the oldest female being the leader. Herds can be as small as 8 elephants or as large as 100 elephants! While herds do consist of female elephants, male elephants live with the herd until they are 12 to 15 years old, at which time they begin to live mostly solitary lives. Don’t feel too sorry for the males, up until they leave they are raised by the entire herd. Female elephants are also raised by the entire herd, but they never leave and actually form very close bonds.
I am sure you have heard the phrase, “an elephant never forgets.” It stems from the fact that elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Their memories span many years, which serves them well in times of drought as they are able to find watering holes that they have not been to for a very long time. In addition to having exceptional memories, elephants also recognize different languages. A psychologist from Sussex University observed that elephants in Kenya become nervous when they hear Maa language because the Maasai warriors occasionally kill elephants. However, when elephants hear English they become calm because they recognize English as a language spoken by harmless tourists. As impressive as their ability to recognize language is, elephants’ ability to recognize more than 100 individual elephant voices is even more impressive. I think I can only recognize the voices of a handful of people.
Like people, elephants have a complex range of emotions that they display in a variety of ways. For example, when an elephant is feeling joyous because she is reunited with a lost herd member she will flap her ears and run toward the old friend with enthusiasm. Elephants also display joy at the birth of a baby by trumpeting and flapping their ears. In addition to joy, elephants display many other emotions, including love and compassion. One of the more touching stories of elephant compassion comes from one herd being observed to move very slowly because they would not leave a member that had a broken leg behind.
4. Life Span
The life span of elephants is surprisingly long. In fact, elephants can live to be 60 to 70 years old, which is nearly the same life span humans in developed nations have! In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park one third of the females live past 50, with a median age of 56. Not all elephants live this long. Unfortunately, one of the primary reasons for shortened life spans in elephants is elephant hunting, and another reason is captivity. Elephants in captivity have considerably shorter life spans, with the median age being 36.
5. Sense of Smell
Since they have such a long trunk, it may not surprise you that elephants have a keen sense of smell. Their nostrils are located on the tip of their trunk and are very powerful. Elephants can detect scents up to several miles away. They can even smell water from far distances! When they are not using their sense of smell to detect water or search for food, elephants rely on scent to differentiate members of the herd.
6. Sense of Hearing
While elephants have a great sense of smell, their sense of hearing is even better. Elephants have the best hearing among land animals! It is good to know those big ears are not being wasted. Due to their superb hearing abilities, elephants hear at frequencies 20 times lower than people. This allows them to communicate in very low rumbles, which they can hear from almost 4 miles away.
One of the most fascinating features of an elephant is its trunk. An elephant's trunk is very strong and can push down entire trees. As impressive as this strength is, the dexterity of an elephant’s trunk is even more amazing. Elephants can pick up a single blade of grass of grass with their trunks. I have even seen a video of elephants painting pictures of other elephants and trees! If you can believe it, the paintings were actually very good. This amazing ability to move their trunks with so much flexibility and control comes from the fact that there are 8 major muscles and more than 150,000 muscle fascicles in an elephant’s trunk. Also, there are no bones or cartilage. Their trunk is pure muscle!
Elephants are amazing creatures. They are extremely intelligent and emotional beings. I hope you have enjoyed learning about elephants as much as enjoyed sharing these wondrous facts with you. Are you surprised by how emotionally complex elephants are?