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Elephants - Proboscidea

Elephants - Proboscidea

Photos © Darrell Gulin / Getty Images.

Elephants (Proboscidea) are a group of large herbivorous land mammals. There are three species of elephants alive today, the African savanna elephant, the African forest elephant and the Asian elephant. There are four subspecies of Asian elephants which include the Borneo elephant, the Sumatran elephant, the Indian elephant and the Sri Lankan elephant.

The various elephants species differ in their appearance. Asian elephants are smallest of all elephant species. They have a smaller body, smaller ears and females lack tusks. African savanna elephants are the largest of all the elephant species. They have large ears, a short and wide mandible, and both males and females have tusks. African forest elephants have a long and narrow mandible, a characteristic which distinguishes them from African savanna elephants which have a short, wide mandible.

Elephants have a bulky body, large ears, a long trunk and most have proimant tusks (although female Asian elephants lack tusks). They have thick grey skin but often their color is red or brown in color from wallowing in mud and dusting with dirt.

The trunk of an elephant is formed from the elephant's upper lip and nose. An elephant's trunk is highly sensitive and enables it to lift food and water from ground level to its mouth—tasks that would otherwise be challenging due to the height of an elephant. To drink, elephants suction water up into their trunk (as much as ten quarts) and then spray it into their mouth. The elephant's nasal openings are located at the end of its trunk.

Elephants have sparse hair covering their body and their skin. Their skin, which appears tough an leathery, is in fact extremely sensitive and requires a great deal of care. Elephants bath frequently, wallow in the mud. They also dust their skin by tossing dirt over themselves. Bathing, wallowing, and dusting removes parasites, cools the skin and applies a layer of protective dirt that acts as a sunscreen.

Elephants are herbivores and require a great deal of food each day—more than 800 pounds per individual, daily. They eat grass, foliage, twigs, branches and fruit. Elephants are capable of uprooting over entire trees as they forage. For this reason, elephants are often viewed as destructive pests wherever their range overlaps with human populations.

The skeleton of an elephant is shaped by its need to support the animal's massive weight. Elephants have stocky, sturdy limb bones and their feet are wide. The heel is reinforced with a cushion of dense connective tissue.

Central Africa including the Congo Basin, south Africa, India and southeast Asia. Asian elephants inhabit grasslands, tropical forests and scrub forests in India and southeast Asia including Sumatra and Borneo. African savanna elephants inhabit savannas and grasslands in central and southern Africa. African forest elephants inhabit forests in the Congo Basin in central Africa.

Elephants closest living relative are manatees. Other close relatives to elephants include hydraxes and rhinoceroses. Although today there are only two living species in the elephant family, there used to be some 150 species including animals such as Arsinoitherium and Desmostylia.


Elephants form a group of mammals. There are two genera of elephants, the Loxodonta which includes the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephant and the Elephas which includes the Asian elephant.

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