Frequently Asked Questions about Elephants

How many kinds of elephants are there?

  • There are currently three recognized species: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the recently classified African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
  • There are multiple subspecies from different regions throughout Asia and Africa.

How big do elephants grow?

  • Adult Asian elephants can weigh between three to seven tons (6,000 to 14,000 pounds, or 2,700 to 6,300 kg). They usually stand six to twelve feet (1.8 to 3.8 meters) tall at the shoulder. Bulls (males) are typically larger than cows (females).
  • Adult bull African savanna elephants weigh on average four to seven tons (8,000 to 14,000 pounds, or 3,600 to 6,300 kg) and stand between eight to fourteen feet (2.4 to 4.3 meters) at the shoulder. Cows are smaller, weighing up to 7,127 pounds (3,232 kg) and measuring 8.7 feet (2.6 meters) at shoulder height.
  • African forest elephants are the smallest of the three species. Bull forest elephants reach a shoulder height of 7.9 to 9.8 feet (2.4 to 3.0 meters). Females are smaller at about 5.9 to 7.9 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) tall at the shoulder.
  • Elephants are unusual among mammals because they continue to grow throughout their lives, although their rate of growth slows after they reach maturity (~20 to 30 years old).

What do elephants eat?

  • Elephants are herbivores, which means they eat plant material.
  • In the wild, elephants eat a wide variety of grasses, tree branches, shrubs, roots, and fruit. Human-cultivated crops such as corn, bananas, and sugar cane are also favored foods, which often leads to human-elephant conflict.
  • In human care, elephants eat similar diets to their wild counterparts but are also given different types of hay as well as specially-designed dietary supplements such as grain and also a variety of treats such as biscuits and restaurant-quality produce. Elephants can also be given "people food" such as peanut butter and popcorn in small quantities for enrichment. Each elephant in human care is given an individually tailored diet based on their age, health, activity level, and metabolism.
  • Elephants only digest about half of what they eat. Because of that, they have to eat great amounts of food, about 165 to 330 pounds (74 to 150 kg) per day and about 50 gallons (189 liters) of water per day in the wild. A large mature bull elephant may eat twice that amount.

How do elephants communicate?

  • Elephants primarily use their sense of smell to communicate, and they have the largest number of olfactory receptor genes of any animal studied so far. They can even smell water to locate a source to drink from.
  • Elephants can make a wide variety of sounds ranging from trumpets, rumbles, roars, barks, purrs, and gurgles. Asian elephants in particular can also make a squeaking sound.
  • Elephants can also communicate over long distances through "infrasonics," which are low-pitched sounds that are barely audible to the human ear.

How long do elephants live?

  • An important distinction to consider in the answer to this question is between "life expectancy" and "lifespan."
  • Longevity of elephants is not well understood, and most of the available information comes from African elephants. Recent data suggests that African elephants rarely live to the age of 50 years.
  • Evidence suggests that Asian elephants typically live into their mid-50s, but there is not enough consistent information available on wild Asian elephants to accurately estimate their lifespans. Median life expectancy for female Asian elephants is 47 years old. There have been multiple cases of Asian elephants in human care living into their 70s and 80s.

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