August 12th is World Elephant Day! Since 2012, this day has been designated to promote the protection of the world’s elephants. Initiated by filmmaker Patricia Sims and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation of Thailand, World Elephant Day is celebrated by over 65 wildlife organizations worldwide.
Elephants are some of the most recognizable and unique creatures on the planet. They are the largest living land animals, and are easily identified by their long and flexible trunks. But these amazing mammals are so much more than their unusual noses! Let’s take some time on their special day to learn a bit more about these powerful pachyderms.
Where Did They Come From?
That word we used – pachyderm – have you ever heard it before? While it’s often used today to refer to elephants, it was originally a name applied to elephants, hippopotamuses, and rhinoceroses, back when they were believed to be closely related. However, it’s now known that other than being mammals, these animals are not actually all that closely linked, despite their large size and tough skin. Still, the word pachyderm remains a common term to describe elephants.
Elephants actually belong to the order Proboscidea, and their closest living relatives are now thought to be the manatees, and small mouse-like animals called hyraxes. The Proboscidea order has been around for about 60 million years, and includes many diverse elephant relatives, including the woolly mammoth and the Amebelodon or “shovel-tusker”.
Where Are They Now?
Though a dozen different families of Proboscideans have existed throughout the order’s history, all have gone extinct except one: Elephantidae. This family includes the three living species of elephant. Today’s elephants can be divided into two groups: The African elephants (genus Loxodonta) and the Asian elephants (genus Elephas). There was previously thought to be one species of each type, but recent discoveries indicate that there are likely two species of African elephant: one that lives mainly in forests, and one that inhabits the savannah.
How can you tell Asian and African elephants apart? While both have long trunks, tusks and thick gray skin, there are a number of features that separate them from each other. The main indicators are the ears: African elephants have huge ears, while Asian elephant ears are comparatively smaller. Though both types have tusks, typically only the male Asian elephants grow them while both male and female African elephants have them. The African elephant also grows larger than the Asian, and its back is concave while the Asian elephant’s is convex. Finally, the African elephant has two fleshy “lips” at the tip of its trunk that help it grab onto things, while the Asian elephant only has one such lip.
How Did They Get So Big?
As we mentioned, elephants are the largest living land animals on earth. But why would they need to get so big? The answer lies in their evolution. As elephants developed, they did so alongside other mammals including perissodactyls (such as horses and their ancestors) and artiodactyls (such as antelopes and their ancestors). These mammals were all plant eaters, and thus they began to compete with one another.
Over time, elephants grew to large sizes, because this allowed for them to eat coarser, less nourishing parts of plants while still getting the nutrients they needed. They developed special teeth to help them grind up plants so they could be digested and metabolized. Other herbivorous mammals were not able to survive eating the coarser part of the plants, and required more nutritious food, such as fruits and leaves, that were often seasonal. The elephants could thrive year round, since they could process a wider range of plant material, thanks to the effect of a larger body size on their metabolism.
How Can We Help Them?
All elephant species alive today are threatened with extinction to some degree. The African bush elephant is considered “Vulnerable” while the Asian elephant is considered “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The African forest elephant has not been formally evaluated, but its population is also suffering due to the slower birth rate of this species. Its numbers are estimated to have decreased by 65% between 2002 and 2014 due to illegal poaching.
Due to their size, elephants have very few natural predators. The greatest threat to elephants is humanity, as they are often killed illegally for their ivory tusks, which are quite valuable on black markets. It is believed that up to 35,000 elephants are poached for their ivory every year. They also face serious threats due to habitat loss, as forests are burned or cut down for logging and agriculture purposes.
How can you help? Many organizations are devoted to the conservation of elephants, including the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which is devoted to reintroducing captive Asian elephants back into the wild. The World Wildlife Fund is also committed to saving these amazing animals, with programs designed to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, increase antipoaching initiatives, and stop habitat destruction. You can even donate to the “Back a Ranger” project, which helps those who are the first line of defense against poachers: park rangers on African wildlife reserves.
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: Elephant skin is very thick – almost an inch and a half thick in some places – but it’s also very sensitive. This is why elephants will frequently bathe in water and powder their skin with dust to protect it from invasive parasites.