The elephant: the largest living land animal

Elephas_maximus_(Bandipur)From the killer whale whose heart is large enough to fit a small car inside, to the crocodile whose lungs are able to move around within its body cavity to alter its centre of gravity: the animal kingdom contains some of the most fascinating and unusual organisms that live on the Earth. It’s the fascinating adaptations found throughout the animal world that fuels our interests in these animals.

For years the extraordinary elephant has roamed south-eastern Asia and Africa.  Weighing up to six tonnes and reaching up to four metres in height, the elephant is an extremely impressive animal; in fact the largest of all land animals. Despite their vegetarian diet, getting into a fight with an animal of this size should be avoided at all costs!

The big question is how have their systems adapted to meet the needs of this monstrous body?

We know the elephant has in excess of 200 bones that make up its skeleton- hardly surprising given that it needs to support its sheer size. In keeping with its frame, the elephant also has a huge skull, but what is perhaps surprising is its relatively small mouth.  Due to the nature of the tough vegetation that elephants eat, they have evolved to have 8 teeth the size of bricks.  The surface of the teeth are covered in tough enamel ridges that grind vegetation into a pulp as the jaw moves back and forwards.  As old teeth become excessively worn, new teeth are produced at the back of the mouth. The new tooth gradually moves forward, pushing the worn one towards the front of the jaw.  It is this conveyor belt action that allows elephants to eat throughout their entire lifetime.

Another fascinating, and obvious, feature of the elephant is their tusks. They are basically huge incisor teeth, used primarily as a defence mechanism (who wouldn’t be scared of two huge sword-like projections?) as well as for foraging food.  Male elephants also use their tusks to dominate other males, and to help find themselves a mate. The pair of huge tusks is an obvious show of natural selection; in this case, the bigger the tusks the better. The largest known tusk was a whopping 3.5 metres in length.

However, in recent years we have seen a dramatic reversal in the tusk stakes. Due to pressures from hunters and poachers, having large tusks makes these elephants a prime target. It is for this very reason that we are now seeing a very obvious reduction in the size of elephant tusks.

Elephant_snorkelingYet another amazing adaptation we see in elephants originates from within their lungs. Unlike most other mammals, elephants’ lungs lack a pleural space separating their lungs from the ribs.  Instead, connective tissue connects the lungs to their ribcage and diaphragm. But what advantage might this have? Scientists believe that this incredible anomaly may have arisen to aid elephants in ‘snorkelling’; elephants are the only land mammal that are able to entirely submerge themselves in water whilst taking in air from above the surface. Without the lung-rib connective tissue, blood vessels in the lungs would most likely not survive the huge changes in pressure exerted on them whilst snorkelling. By covering these vessels in a much tougher membrane, they are protected from damage from changes in pressure. The downside to this tough casing is that the blood vessels aren’t able to produce a lubricating fluid necessary to ensure that the lungs and rib cage slide over one another during respiration. Without the fluid, the tough connective tissue only allows a small degree of movement. Despite perhaps negatively impacting upon respiration, the benefits that this connective tissue confers to the elephant far outweigh the negatives.

Angry_elephant_earsPerhaps even more fascinating is how an animal of this size, living in extremely hot regions of the world, manages to prevent overheating. They haven’t exactly been blessed with the ideal body shape to stay cool. To address this mystery, scientists used heat-mapping techniques to measure the external temperature of an elephant throughout the day, while also measuring the temperature from within the elephant.  Results found that whilst the surface of the elephant can reach up to 55 degrees Celsius, internal temperatures are kept far lower at around 35 degrees. So what exactly is allowing the elephant to remain cool?  We know that the answer lies with their ears. As with their skull, elephants have the largest ears in the animal kingdom. But these ears serve a very important purpose; they act as a massive fan working to cool down the elephant. By effectively ‘flapping’ the ears back and forth, air is forced back over the body. Big arteries from the body carry blood close to the ears surface via a series of smaller vessels. The ears are well equipped to deal with this, as they are extremely thin. It is this flapping motion of the ears that allow much of the heat from the body to be carried away, and hence prevents overheating.

Elephant_trunk_(1)And finally, I couldn’t talk about the mighty elephant without mentioning its most recognisable piece of anatomy. The trunk. This ingenious piece of machinery is involved in many things that elephants do; feeding and drinking, snorkelling, washing, playing, communicating, feeling, and manipulating amongst many others. This original piece of anatomy seemed to have evolved long ago through natural selection. The sheer size of an elephant’s body and head made bending down to pickup food an onerous task. This difficulty caused the trunk to evolve. Over many years it is thought that these animals slowly evolved to have a shorter jaw, but with a longer top lip.  As they became taller and taller, the upper lip gradually elongated until it resembled a trunk that was able to feed without having to bend down.

You might think of these animals as large, bulky and clumsy, but this is in fact far from the truth. They are amazing feats of engineering. We know that elephants are actually very elegantly made and adapted to suit their body’s needs from their trunk, their cooling system and to their lungs. Today elephants are the only animals of such size, so it is obvious that their size doesn’t hamper them; their body is doing something right.

Post by Samantha Lawrence

15 thoughts on “The elephant: the largest living land animal

  1. Wow… this article just shows again how amazing these animals’ anatomy is and how well they have evolved to become one of the worlds most magnificent land animals. It is such a shame, and quite shocking to say the least, to think that their tusks are becoming smaller because of the selfishness, greediness and cruelty of us humans.

    I totally agree with Samantha Lawrence when she says, and I quote : “You might think of these animals as large, bulky and clumsy, but this is in fact far from the truth. They are amazing feats of engineering.” This is also one of the reasons why I feel that we as humans must do everything in our power to conserve them. I don’t think you will ever find an animal again with such complex anatomy and mechanisms and it is something so special that everyone, that is currently and that will be, living on planet earth needs to experience and see.

    Elephants are the pride and joy of Africa, our own gentle giants and we should do much, much more to protect them to ensure that these “amazing feats of engineering” will live for many more years!

    • What would the big five be without Mr Elephant? Pictures will certainly not give you that feeling you get when you stand next to an elephant feeling so small and insecure against the giant next to you.

      I agree with Diné, we should do more to protect these gracious giants from being killed for their tusks to conserve them to be admire by future generations. These animals have a unique anatomy and Samantha Lawrence states it so perfectly when she says: “They are amazing feats of engineering.”

      Who has the biggest ear , an outer body temperature of 55 ⁰C, a trunk and can swim under water and while under water still breath above water at the same time ? Only the amazing nature engineered elephant. I think we can use some of our human developed engineered technology to save elephants like planting microchips in the elephants tusks so that the elephant could be monitored and poachers be hunted down. Don`t poach the elephant poach the poacher save an elephant.

  2. Check out Brown et al. in Respiration Physiology August 1997. They challenge the idea that the pleural space of elephants is obliterated to prevent bleeding and argue cogently that it is to support the lung against gravitational tissue distortion!

  3. The Animal Kingdom is truly magnificent. Each and every animal is adapted is such a beautiful way.

    Elephants are our most amazing mammals. They are definitely “amazing feats of engineering”. It’s a pity that they are being killed for cruel purposes. Poachers are a huge problem that these animals face. They should be protected and people must respect them for their beauty. It’s sad to hear stories of elephants being killed just for their tusks.

    I recently visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I was fortunate enough to see an elephant herd crossing right in front of me! I was amazed at how the bull stood between his heard and the people, making sure they all passed safely. They are beautiful in pictures, but an even better impression up close!

    These magnificent creatures are something everyone should be proud of. They should be admired for their beauty, and better protection should be provided for them. We must all appreciate every factor of life. From the little ant, to the giant elephant!

  4. The Animal Kingdom is a truly magnificent wonder. There are so many creatures, each adapted in their own special way. Reading this article I once again realized why elephants are so special.

    Elephants are beautiful creatures. It’s a pity though to see them killed for cruel purposes. Poachers pose a huge threat to these creatures. They are often killed for their tusks. It is sad to hear about their declining numbers. They deserved to be conserved and protected.

    I recently visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa. While we were driving through the park, I was fortunate enough to witness an elephant herd crossing right in front of my eyes! I was amazed to see how the bull stood between his herd and the onlookers, making sure they were protected as they all passed. These creatures are beautiful in pictures, but even more impressionable up close!

    I never knew how well they were adapted to survive, and this article reminded me of their greatness once again. They are truly wonderful creatures that we should all be proud of and strive to protect and conserve. All life should be respected; from the smallest ant to the largest elephant.

  5. The Animal Kingdom is a truly magnificent wonder. There are so many creatures, each adapted in their own special way. Reading this article I once again realized why elephants are so special.

    Elephants are beautiful creatures. It’s a pity though to see them killed for cruel purposes. Poachers pose a huge threat to these creatures. They are often killed for their tusks. It is sad to hear about their declining numbers. They deserved to be conserved and protected.

    I recently visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa. While we were driving through the park, I was fortunate enough to witness an elephant herd crossing right in front of my eyes! I was amazed to see how the bull stood between his herd and the onlookers, making sure they were protected as they all passed. These creatures are beautiful in pictures, but even more impressionable up close!

    I never knew how well they were adapted to survive, and this article reminded me of their greatness once again. They are truly wonderful creatures that we should all be proud of and strive to protect and conserve. All life should be respected; from the smallest ant to the largest elephant.

  6. It is amazing to learn how an elephants body is adapted to handle its environment. I would also like to add that elephants have an amazing way of communicating which involves low frequency seismic signals. The stomp of a fully grown elephant can send out vibrations lasting for up to 32 kilometres. These vibrations are often used to alert other elephants of predator activity close by. Elephants tend to shield the younger elephants in the herd by bunching into groups when a warning is detected. This shows another fascinating attribute of elephants – their social complexity. They are capable of forming close bonds and relationships with each other and so these herds often display a strong family element in which the matriarch is in charge.

  7. I had no idea an elephant’s tusk could grow up 3,5 metres in length! That’s amazing!! I always thought I understood most of these magnificently enormous animals’ physiology but was astonished when i discovered that upon reading this article – there was so much I did not know!

    Not only do elephants have meticulously designed exterior physical properties but they have intricate interior physical properties unlike any other mammals? That’s insane!

    Thank you for this eye-opening blog entry which has certainly increased my curiosity surrounding these majestic animals! Both trained and wild, they possess incredible skills. It has also encouraged me to possibly re-look at a few other animals I thought I had understood.

  8. The African elephant is truly one of the most significant mammals in the world. It should have been the most amazing research ever done, to find out more about this giants anatomy. This is also a great opportunity to get new perspective and respect for this animals. The idea of a 6 ton elephant that can grow up to 4 meters in height, can breathe through their trunks even though they are completely under water and swim through a deep river without a struggle, just shows us how much power they really have.
    AJ van Zyl commented on the elephant’s family structure. Equally amazing is their sense of live and death. The whole heard will celebrate the birth of a calf, and likewise all will mourn the death of another elephant. They are known to go and “greet” a dead elephant by smelling and touching it for a couple of hours. Even bare bones are visited again, and moved around with their trunks and tusks.
    They are indeed unique and amazing, both from a biological and sociological perspective.
    The more we get to know about this giant, the more value they have. They are truly one of Africa’s greatest wonders!

  9. Elephants are truly one of the most wonderful and complex animals on earth. There are so many things that make them unique as described by Samantha Lawrence. Everything about them takes my breath away. To think that a 6-ton beast can move so gently and silent that you do not even realized he is standing behind you. That truly is magnificent. The way the elephant has its own air conditioner, his ears, and can regulate its temperature in very warm and very cold conditions is astonishing. Research reveal that baby elephants don’t have the ability to regulate their temperature when they are born but somehow they know they should seek shade under big trees. It is mind boggling to know that no one told them to go and stand under the trees but they do it automatically. The elephant’s trunk is one of the most versatile body parts and is able to do lots of helpful things like smell, touch, breath and to pick up things. It is a very important and without his trunk the elephant will suffer to survive. On the other hand men will kill the elephant’s for their ivory and then leave them to rot. How can one be so cruel? Their beautiful tusks can be a curse and put the survival of the species in danger. The reason why elephants are becoming fewer and fewer in number is indeed the selfishness of the humans. They hold no danger for humans but we as humans holds the biggest danger in for them. If we are not killing them we are taking the space they need to live in. Elephants should be protected because one day this magnificent beast won’t roam this planet any more.

  10. Elephants are truly one of the most wonderful and complex animals on earth. There are so many things that make them unique as described by Samantha Lawrence. Everything about them takes my breath away. To think that a 6-ton beast can move so gently and silent that you do not even realized he is standing behind you. That truly is magnificent. The way the elephant has its own air conditioner, his ears, and can regulate its temperature in very warm and very cold conditions is astonishing. Research reveal that baby elephants don’t have the ability to regulate their temperature when they are born but somehow they know they should seek shade under big trees. It is mind boggling to know that no one told them to go and stand under the trees but they do it automatically. The elephant’s trunk is one of the most versatile body parts and is able to do lots of helpful things like smell, touch, breath and to pick up things. It is a very important and without his trunk the elephant will suffer to survive. On the other hand men will kill the elephant’s for their ivory and then leave them to rot. How can one be so cruel? Their beautiful tusks can be a curse and places the survival of the species in danger. The reason why elephants are becoming fewer and fewer in number is indeed the selfishness of the humans. They hold no danger for humans but we as humans holds the biggest danger in for them. If we are not killing them we are taking the space they need to live in. Elephants should be protected because one day this magnificent beast won’t roam this planet any more.

  11. In addition to AJ van Zyl’s comments about their social complexity and family bonds, I would like to remark on the elephant’s awareness of live and death. The whole heard will support a cow while she is giving birth, and assist her in looking after the new born. Likewise elephants are known to mourn their dead by sniffing and touching the dead elephant for a few hours. They have also been observed to return after a period to the bare bones of their own, even picking up some of the bones.
    Indeed remarkable creatures.

  12. this is truly a very special animal

    The fact that their teeth is as big as bricks is just astonishing it is very hard to imagine that something can chew with such large teeth.

    It is n very sad story that us humans could mean the end of tis magnificent animal. By poaching the elephants and creating global warming we could lead to their extinction.

  13. Theses are truly magnificent animals because they can survive with such large bodies in very arid environments. The fact that their teeth are the same size as bricks is just astonishing and it is hard to believe that anything can chew with such large teeth. It is sad to think that the human race can lead to this amazing animal’s extinction. If the effects of global warming continue to escalate and we keep on poaching these animal, the entire elephant species could be wiped out.

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