ephants are the largest living land mammals. The largest elephant known was a male shot in Angola in 1974. It weighed 12 tonnes (13.5 tons). An elephant child is called a calf. At birth, a calf can have a weight of 100 kg (225 pounds). The baby elephant develops for 20 to 22 months inside its mother. No other land animal takes this long to develop before being born.
An elephant’s most obvious part is the trunk. The trunk is a very long nose, made from the upper lip. An elephant uses its trunk to grab objects such as food. Elephants also have tusks. Tusks are large teeth coming out of their upper jaws. A lot of ivory comes from elephant tusks. Ivory traders killed too many elephants, so now hunting them is illegal.
People knew for a long time there were different kinds of elephants. The scientific word for a kind of animal is species. These species are African and Asian elephants. African elephants are larger and have bigger ears. These big ears have many veins, which carry blood throughout the body. Scientists think that the blood going through their ears helps African elephants to cool off. The weather is hotter in Africa than in Asia, so it is hard for elephants to stay cool. Female African elephants have tusks, but female Asian elephants do not. African elephants have a low place in their back. African elephants have two “fingers” at the end of their trunks, but Asian elephants only have one.
Elephants eat a lot of grass. Grass is hard to chew, so their teeth are very important. Elephants have 24 teeth: 12 front teeth, called premolars, and 12 back teeth, called molars. The teeth come out in order, from front to back. Because grass is very tough, the elephant teeth slowly wear out. When the last molar wears out, the elephant usually dies because it cannot eat. But in a zoo or circus, people can keep elephants alive by feeding them soft food. Scientists call the elephant genus (group of related animals) Loxodonta because “loxodont” means a kind of molar.
Some African elephants live on the savanna while others live in the forest. Today, many people think these are different species. Scientists named the forest group Loxodonta cyclotis and the savanna group Loxodonta africanus. This means that African elephants are even more in danger of dying off forever than people used to think.
Humans have used elephants for different things. The Carthaginian general Hannibal took some elephants across the Alps when he fought the Romans. He probably used the North African elephant, a kind of elephant that does not live today. It was smaller than other African elephants
People have used elephants to move around and to have fun. Many circuses have them. Siamese, Indians, and other South Asians used them for several things. They fought in armies, and they crushed criminals. They also did heavy work like lifting trees and moving logs.
However, people have never domesticated elephants. Domesticated animals are tame and have babies under human control. The male elephant in heat is dangerous and hard to control. Most elephants used by people are female, except those used in war. In a battle, female elephants run from males, so armies needed males.
In the wild, elephants have strong family groups. Their ways of acting toward other elephants are hard for people to understand. They “talk” to each other with very low sounds. Most elephants sounds are so low, people cannot hear them. But elephants can hear these sounds far away.
Elephants are related to sea cows, which are large mammals that live in water. Some people think that long ago, the ancestors of elephants also lived under water. Evolution is how one species changes into another. The ancestors of elephants would have used their trunks for breathing air while they swam. Even today, elephants can swim like this.
The extinct animals called mammoths were relatives of today’s elephants. Modern elephants live only in warm places, but the woolly mammoth had long hair and lived in cold places.