I recently finished a novel in which elephants played a major part. It made me want to know more about these huge mammals.
In a way, I could say that elephants have always been a part of my life. I saw them in childhood at zoos and circuses. Was fascinated by what little I learned of them. Believed, like others, that there was such a thing as an elephant graveyard where elephants went to die. This, by the way, is not true. Still, reading the novel and the list of books at the back that the author had used for her research, I realized that I really knew very little about elephants.
I’ve been fascinated for years and read books about “Leaky’s Angels” who studied the great apes. Now I realize elephants are equally interesting.
The world ‘ele-phant’ means ‘great arch.’ Ancestors to modern elephants show up in the fossil records 45 to 55 million years ago. These early elephants had no trunk. (Remember Kipling’s story “The Elephant’s Child”?) Hairy mammoths and mastodons were only two of the later versions of elephants.
The three modern species of elephant are African savannah, African forest, and Asian.
Similarly to humans, elephant mothers keep their young with them for a long time. An elephant is considered to be in the ‘baby’ stage for about fourteen years. The herd helps to take care of all the young. In adolescence (between age ten to nineteen) the males begin to leave the herd, at first just for short periods of time, but eventually to join a group of other young males or to live alone. The females stay in their birth herd. Females start to breed around age fifteen to sixteen and can have up to twelve young in their lifetimes. Herds are generally led by the eldest female, the matriarch. Males come into mating age between thirty to thirty-five years. Elephants can live for up to seventy years. Mature males can weigh up to seven tonnes, while females can reach 3.5 tonnes.
Elephants have very complex methods of communication. Up to seventy different calls have been identified by researchers. These can range from loud trumpets to quiet rumbles. Elephants can also communicate by infrasound or low frequency sound that humans can’t discern. These sounds can be heard by other elephants up to fourteen kilometers away. If you’d like to experience some elephant sounds that humans can hear, go to “The Elephant Listening Project” on line.
Although elephants once lived across all of Africa, now they inhabit only 37 African and 13 Asian countries.
There are many elephant researchers working among wild elephants and in elephant sanctuaries. You can easily find these on line. I’ll be looking there as well as checking bookstores for more information about the world’s largest land mammals, complex and endlessly fascinating, as well as in need of help to continue to survive.