March, 2018

Anatomy of an Elephant

, animator at Animat Habitat

This article is continued from A History of Elephants.

A parable of three blind men, or women, and an elephant. Three people are each touching a different part of an elephant without seeing the elephant. The first person touches the trunk of the elephant, and says, “An elephant is like a snake.” The second person touches a leg of the elephant, and says, “No, an elephant is like a tree.” The third person touches the side of the elephant, and says, “Incorrect on both accounts, an elephant is like a wall.” Each one of them thinks that the two other statements are incorrect, when in fact they are all describing different parts of the same elephant.

Here is step back to look at the anatomy of an elephant, including notes taken in the making of Ella.


© Museum of Natural History, Marseille

Teeth and Tusks

An elephant only has four molars at any one time, with two on top and two on bottom. These molars are located along both sides of the upper and lower jaw. Each molar is the size of a brick, and weighs up to about twenty pounds. An elephant can only grow six sets of these molars in a lifetime. These molars grind away from use all day, everyday. When the sixth set of molars is worn down from forever chewing fodder, the elephant is soon to starve, unable to supplement a diet with tree bark and so on. [1]

The life expectancy of an elephant in the wild is sixty to seventy years. [1]

Old elephant bulls have often died near marshlands where the vegetation is easier to eat. So goes the legend of elephant graveyards. [1]

Elephant tusks are teeth, too. Elephant tusks are in fact incisors, which begin to grow after a calf has reached about a year of age. Then, for the rest of the life of an elephant, elephant tusks do not stop growing. [1]

Elephant tusks are of course also classified as ivory.

The tusks of an elephant bull will grow much larger than the elephant cow. An elephant bull with at least one tusk weighing in excess of 100 pounds is classified as a super-tusker. Each tusk can grow to two meters in length and, for some super-tuskers, up to about 200 pounds in weight in the course of a lifetime. Today, there are little more than twenty super-tuskers left on Earth, and their tusks do not exceed 150 pounds. [2]

For elephants, tusks are more than an indication of social stature. Elephants need their tusks to survive: to dig for roots and water and so on, to strip bark from trees, to clear pathways, and to defend themselves. Elephants are either left-tusked or right-tusked. The tusk that an elephant uses most will appear a bit more worn down. [1]

No one needs a tusk other than an elephant.

What's in the Trunk?

An elephant trunk is an extension of the upper lip and nose. This highly adapted olfactory organ has nostrils at the tip through which an elephant can breath, has a highly developed sense of smell, and does a hell of a lot more. [3]

Elephants have more than forty up to 150 thousand muscles in their trunk. An elephant trunk, or proboscis, for which the order of the elephantidae family genus is named: proboscidea, contains sixteen larger muscles for major movements, such as raising the trunk. Thousands of smaller muscle fascicles, or bundles of muscle fibers, allow for finer movements of the trunk. African elephants have two finger-like projections at the tip of the trunk, which they can use to pick grass, leaves and fruit. [1]

Elephants use their trunk to skim water holes for the clearer water settled at the surface. Elephants can contain about six to twelve litres of water in their trunk at a time, then spout the water into their mouths or otherwise. Elephants also use their trunk to shower themselves with dust and mud and so on. This an effective sun-block that protects from ultraviolet rays and from parasites. Elephants use their trunk to collect vegetation and to uproot trees, as well as to interact and to communicate with others through smell, sound and touch. [4]

Elephants use their trunk to test unsteady or unfamiliar terrain, by using the outside of the trunk to beat the ground to determine if it is firm enough to walk on. Once determined to be safe, the elephant will step with a front foot onto the tested area. A rear foot follows and is carefully placed in exactly the same footprint. Elephants will also beat the ground with their trunk to signal anger or displeasure. [5]

Elephant Prints

Despite their mass and the massive size of their feet, studies of elephant walking patterns have shown that an elephant walks on his or her toes without making much noise at all, putting the most pressure on the outer toes of the front feet and the least amount of pressure on the heels. Elephant leg bones have no cavity for marrow, instead they are solid bone, which helps to bear the weight of an elephant. Their large round feet spread out as they take a step, which helps to prevent elephants from sinking into the ground and sticking into the mud. [1]

Research has shown that Elephants can communicate more than five up to twenty miles apart using an infrasonic rumble, which travels through the ground faster than sound through the air. Elephants detect these vibrations with a sponge-like digital cushion in the soles of their feet, and sense the direction based on the signal difference between feet. Elephants have been known to detect a thunderstorm from miles away and head toward the rain. [4]

Skin, Ears and Eyes

African elephant skin is gray and wrinkled, is over an inch thick in places, and has no sweat glands. The wrinkled skin helps to store moisture and keep an elephant cooler for longer after dusting and wallowing and so on. The wrinkled skin also increases the surface area of the skin in contact with the air, allowing more blood that flows close to the surface to expel heat before recycling to the core. [1]

Elephant skin is soft and thin in places as well, in particular over top of a network of veins in the ears. An elephant flapping his or her ears in the air acts to radiate heat from blood in the ears before returning to the body. Elephants 2ill also display their big ears to communicate aggression and submission and so on. [6]

She gazed down at me. Her ears splayed open in the shape of Africa. Her eyes, kind and concerned. — Daphne Sheldrick, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Elephants display a range of emotions, including demonstrating grief at the loss of herd members. Elephants have visited and revisited the bones of past herd members long after she has passed on, even when the sites happen to fall out of the way. An elephant has a spot on the sides of his or her head, behind each eye, which is at times darkened by the secretion of glands near the temporal lobe. These temporal glands are activated when elephants enter into hormonal responses, such as “musth” as well as highly charged situational stress. [5]

Elephant skin is covered with papillae, with hairs of varying color, length, thickness and all of which makes elephant skin skin highly sensitive. Elephants of the same herd will often greet each other with touch. [7]

The hair of elephant calves has a lighter, red-brown color with a softer texture, then grows darker and more coarse. Elephant hair that grows along the back and tail is flattened and can grow to almost a metre in length. Eyelashes that grow up to five inches long help to shade the eyes from dirt and sand swirling in the desert. Elephants also have three eyelids: upper, lower and one that moves vertically. The vertical eyelid is clear, and protects the eyes while allowing them to see. [1]


Daphne Sheldrick, Tsavo © Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

1 Elephant Facts. Elephant Aid International. Website Link

2 Currie, J. Last of the Big Tuskers. Umboko Productions, 2018.

3 Poole, J. Granli, P. Elephant Sense & Sociality: Facts & Figures. Elephant Voices. Website Link

4 Poole, J. Granli, P. How Elephants Communicate. Elephant Voices. Website Link

5 Poole, J. Granli, P. Elephant Gestures Database. Elephant Voices.

6 Elephants: Interesting Facts. International Elephant Foundation. Website Link

7 Laursen, L. Bekoff, M. 1978. Loxodonta africana. Mammalian Species Vol.92: 1-8. Website Link

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