Tusks and Trunks: Amazing True Facts About Elephants

Elephants are the largest living land animals on the planet. With a biological classification of “pachyderm” (a very large mammal with thick skin), these majestic creatures exist naturally in Africa and Asia. Most of us have seen elephants in zoos or at the circus, but how much do you really know about them? Here are 20 amazing facts about elephants.

Elephant tusks never stop growing

Elephants tusks never stop growing, so some very old bulls have huge ones. Sadly, the average size of tusks has decreased over the past century because rampant ivory hunting has caused the ‘big tusk gene’ to become increasingly rare.

Evidence and research indicate that elephants prefer one tusk over the other, similar to humans being left- or right-handed. The preferred tusk is known as the “master tusk.”

And just like with snowflakes, no two tusks are alike!

They never forget a face

Elephants really do have the steel-trap minds! Reports abound of elephants immediately recognizing other elephants they hadn’t seen in decades, or of elephants remembering routes to alternate food or water sources when their usual areas dry up.

In one touching moment, someone recorded of a reunion between Shirley and Jenny, two crippled elephants reunited at a sanctuary after a 22-year separation. The bonding was immediate between the two former circus elephants. This astonishing recall power is a key element of the elephants’ survival.

Here’s another fact: John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in a rock band called Elephant’s Memory from 1971 to 1973.

Scaredy cats?

Everyone’s seen the cartoons that depict elephants as being terrified of mice. From the Disney movie “Dumbo” to Saturday morning cartoons, the image of an elephant being terrified by a tiny mouse is pretty well ingrained.

But are elephants, in fact, afraid of mice? The popular TV show Mythbusters set out to find out once and for all. The verdict? Elephants do indeed seem to be cautious around mice, though some theorize that it’s the element of surprise that’s scarier than the mouse itself.

They grieve their dead

Image credit: Pinterest/semptress
Image credit: Pinterest/semptress

Elephants are known to show incredible empathy. They help each other during times of trouble, grieve for their dead, and feel strong emotions.

Watch this moving video as a wild herd stumbles across an elephant carcass and ceremoniously touches the bones in grief. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3hn1x0

Elephants are matriarchal

It’s the female elephants who wear the “elepants” in their herds. “In elephant society males and females live in completely different worlds, with females dwelling in tightly bonded families that stay together for life, and males living a largely solitary existence.” Females make the decisions that ensure her family’s safety, health and survival.

If an elephant family becomes too large, it will split into two factions to use resources more effectively.

Elephants have a great sense of smell

Elephants’ sense of smell is very acute. In fact, “researchers have discovered that African Elephants have the largest number of genes dedicated to smell of any mammal.” In fact, they have twice the number of smell genes as dogs and five times more smell genes than humans.

It probably doesn’t hurt to have the largest nose in the animal kingdom!

They have built-in GPS

Researchers studied a group of elephants for two years and found that “elephants selected the closest watering hole 90 percent of the time, and set course for them from up to 30 miles away.”

The researchers determined that elephants are able to establish complex mental maps of the terrain in order to successfully navigate the large territories where they dwell.

Elephants are natural mathematicians

Image credit: Twitter/welt
Image credit: Twitter/welt

Well, not quite, but there is evidence that elephants have considerable numerical skills.

Elephants are able to recognize the difference between two quantities of objects as they were being placed into buckets. This test has also been conducted on primates, including human children. Researchers say that the elephants did better than any of the primates!

Here’s a video of an Asian elephant doing arithmetics.

Same-sex bonding is commonplace

Same-sex bonding is common in elephants, usually in the form of affectionate trunk touching, kissing, or placing trunks into the other animal’s mouth. Males occasionally mount one another. An encounter between a bull and a cow is generally pretty brief, but male-male interactions tend to last for much longer and often involves an older adult with one or two juvenile males.

Elephants have self-recognition

Image credit: Imgur/DieselGumby
Image credit: Imgur/DieselGumby

Only 8 species in the world, including humans and dolphins, can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Here’s a fascinating video showing the complex process involved in learning self-recognition.

They don’t like peanuts

No one seems to know where this myth originated, but elephants do not eat peanuts in the wild and aren’t fed peanuts in captivity. Most elephants don’t even seem to enjoy them.

Mothers are fiercely protective

Image credit: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Image credit: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As with most mammals, elephant mothers are fiercely protective of their babies. As they should be, considering that they have a 22-month gestation period! That’s a long time to be pregnant, the longest of any other land animal.

Here are some videos of mommy elephants running in to save the day.

Elephants can get sunburns


Even though they have thick skin, elephants don’t have any hair to protect themselves from the sun. Perhaps this is the reason elephants love mud baths so much — a nice coating of mud is sufficient to shield their skin from the sun’s harmful rays. It’s natural sunscreen!

Adult elephants will sometimes stand over little ones to shade them. Here’s a group mud bath.

They eat A LOT

This is no shocker, considering their size. But “elephants may spend 12-18 hours a day feeding. Adult elephants can eat between 200-600 pounds of food a day. As herbivores, elephants consume grasses, tree foliage, bark, twigs, and other vegetation daily. Elephants can also drink up to 50 gallons of water a day – about as much as a standard bathtub holds.”

They’re especially fond of pumpkins, surprisingly. Watch them demolish pumpkins at the Cleveland Zoo.

Elephants are altruistic

Image credit: YouTube/elephantnews
Image credit: YouTube/elephantnews

Elephants are highly altruistic creatures. They are known to aid each other, and even to help other species (including humans), who are distressed or in peril.

Here’s a heartwarming story about an elephant who befriended a dog, and eventually helps the dog recover from a severe injury.

An elephant was the first animal superstar

Jumbo was an elephant who lived from 1860-1885, and he was the first international animal superstar, as well as the first African elephant to reach modern Europe alive. The young Winston Churchill once rode in a carriage pulled by Jumbo at the London Zoo.

His name came from the Swahili word for “chief” or “boss,” and he is the reason we now use the word “jumbo” to mean “huge.”

Sadly, Jumbo Jumbo was struck and killed by a train after a circus performance in Canada. He was only 24.

Elephants have great language skills

Image credit: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images
Image credit: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers working with an Asian elephant named Koshik report that he has learned to imitate human speech and can say five words in Korean: hello, no, sit down, lie down and good.

He puts the tip of his trunk into his mouth to alter his natural “low rumble” into an astonishing impression of a human voice. Here’s Koshik in action. Amazing!

Wild elephants live longer than captive ones

For African elephants, the average lifespan is 17 years for zoo-born females, compared to 56 years in the wild.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this is, but suspect that obesity and stress levels of captive elephants might be negatively affecting lifespan.

Elephants love to play

Image credit: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Image credit: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Elephants are incredibly playful and like to have fun with each other. Researchers have determined that “play” is just one of the ways elephants communicate.

Here’s an adorable video of elephants playing.

The world could lose a fifth of its African elephant population in 10 years

Elephant poaching has skyrocketed since 2007, despite a 1989 international ban on new ivory sales.

“An increasing demand for ivory in China has led to a drastic decline in the African elephant population. Ivory can sell for as much as $1,500 a pound on the black market. Paul G. Allen, head of the Elephants Without Borders population survey, estimates 96 elephants died every day last year. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that since 2010, Africa has lost about 35,000 elephants each year, and at the current poaching rate, more elephants are killed each year than are born.”

Does this upset you or make you angry? World Elephant Day has a list of things you can do to help our planet’s elephant population, and you can “adopt” an elephant through the World Wildlife Fund.