AZA Elephant TAG/SSP Elephant Information

The Social Lives of Elephants

Elephants are the largest living land mammals. These amazing creatures are a favorite for animal enthusiasts, zoogoers, and animal caretakers alike. Below is more information on the lives of elephants, including information about size, life span, social behavior and communication.

African elephants can grow to be about 13 feet tall and weigh over 10 tons (or 20,000 lbs)! Asian elephants, although smaller, can still grow to be 12 feet tall and reach weights of 7 tons (14,000 lbs). Elephants can live for up to 70 years.

Elephants may spend 12-18 hours a day feeding. Since elephants are so large, they require an enormous amount of food. Adult elephants can eat between 200-600 lbs 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 bath tub holds.

Elephants have a variety of adaptations that allow them to survive in a wide range of habitats. An elephant's trunk is one very valuable adaptaion. Elephants use their trunk much like humans use their hands. In fact, an elephant's trunk has numerous muscles and a grasping tip. The trunk can be used to pick up food as well as to suck up water and shoot it into the elephants' mouth. Elephants will also use their trunk to suck up mud or dust and spray it over their body to protect their skin. Also, the well-developed sense of touch in their trunks is often used to reassure other herd members.
Elephants' ivory tusks are actually elongated incisor teeth. They use these tusks to dig out minerals from the soil and to dig waterholes in dry riverbeds. They excavate the holes using their trunk, tusks, and feet. It is thought that these waterhole locations are passed down from one generation to another.

An elephants' ears, especially those of the African elephant, help them to stay cool. Their ears are filled with blood vessels; by holding them out in the wind or flapping them, an elephant can create its own cooling system.
An African elephant family group can average 8-10 individuals, where as an Asian elephant unit tends to be smaller, averaging 4-8 individuals.

In general, older, experienced females, called matriarchs, lead elephant families. These female-led herds usually consist of adult daughters, their calves, and a number of juvenile and adolescent male and female offspring. Female herd members are usually related, but occasionally non-related individuals join to form families. 

Young females often assist their mothers with calf care and provide allomothering for younger calves in the herd. Since female elephants are known to remain reproductive throughout most of their lives, this is their primary activity beyond eating and drinking. Female elephants also appear to maintain lifelong relationships with their immediate relatives, particularly their female offspring. The connection of elephant females in the wild to their family members and calves is well documented in many situations.  

Male, or bull elephants have very different social needs than do the females.  In the wild, males leave or are driven out of the family group as they approach sexual maturity. Males spend as much as 95% of their lives alone or in loose association with other bulls. Though bulls are primarily solitary in adulthood, they do at times associate in bachelor groups. They are often also in chemosensory (scent) and infrasonic communication (low-frequency calls) with other elephants in their area.  In early years of adulthood, the young bulls spend time learning the capabilities of other bulls in their area and establish a social hierarchy and status. As they age and grow larger, thus able to compete effectively for breeding opportunities, the bulls appear to spend their time eating and seeking out females.  Elephant bull nature is competitive, rather than affiliative.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals that display complex social behaviors such as greeting ceremonies, group defense, submission, tactile contacts, vocal communication, scent communication, social play, courtship, mating, birthing, parenting, communal care, teaching, threat displays, charging, and fighting.

Elephants have a number of adaptations that help them maintain communication. Their sensitive hearing allows them to keep in touch over long distances. They also use their ears as signaling devices, often to warn the herd of approaching danger.

Elephants produce a variety of vocalizations including trumpets, squeaks, chirps, and low frequency rumbles. Rumble vocalizations contain frequencies that are below the range of human hearing (infrasonic components). These low frequency calls can travel several miles and may be used to coordinate their movements. Females may also use these calls to announce their willingness to breed.

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Updated: September 23, 2009