The world’s largest land mammal is an impressive creature. Its sheer size and accompanying strength will hold anyone in awe, yet as with so many creatures, it is the finer details that are often the most interesting.
We thought we’d briefly run through three of the seeming minutiae of an elephant’s anatomy and explain why they are so important to their continued health.
Some of the most elegant eyelashes you’ll find are on an elephant. Granted, when compared to a gigantic six ton bull they might not seem disproportionately long, but they certainly stick out enough to catch our attention.
And that’s by no means the only thing they catch. Dust, pieces of the tree they’re eating, and all manner of small particles could end up in an elephant’s eye if it didn’t have some preventative measure in place, and this is where the eyelashes come in. They play a large part in keeping an elephant’s eye irritant-free.
Elephants are not shy of eating thorn trees. Many species they relish have long, wickedly sharp thorns, and in order to reach the choicest bits of the tree, an elephant might have to put its head right in amongst the foliage, running the very real risk of getting jabbed in the eye by said thorns. Sensitive eyelashes – just like ours – let the creature know when something is hovering close to its eye and will bring about the blink response or cause the elephant to move its head away.
Very few people are truly ambidextrous. Most are either right- or left-handed, and it’s the same with elephants, although probably not quite to the same extent.
Elephants generally have a working tusk; one that they favour when it comes to gouging out bark, snapping branches with, etc. More often than not this tusk will be appear slightly more worn – and often shorter – than the other, and one clear identifying feature of the working tusk is the small groove that forms just behind the tip.
The groove forms from countless branches being run over that tusk over the years, wearing it away slowly.
One regularly encounters elephants with one (or sometimes two) stubby tusks; one will have snapped off, sometimes its whole length, sometimes just a short bit. Although bulls sometimes break tusks in fights with each other, for the most part these broken tusks are the working tusk encountering a job that was just a little too much for it; levering a heavy log or catching it in a tree at a funny angle. Losing both tusks is unlikely to be fatal to an elephant, it’s just a great inconvenience.
Look at an elephant and it looks wrinkly. Like its skin was a couple of sizes too big. The older they are, the saggier they look. Don’t we all.
But if you look really closely (inadvisable, unless you’re using binoculars), you’ll discover that the skin is made up of way more convolutions, cracks and crevices than you imagined.
It’s all about temperature control.
Elephants don’t have sweat glands like we do. They have a few, but these are all situated on their feet. Instead they stay cool by spraying themselves with mud or water, or even completely immersing themselves in either. The cracked skin results in a far slower evaporation rate than smooth skin would, with up to 10% more moisture being retained. On a hot day in Africa, a completely wet elephant would be dry in mere minutes if its skin was smooth, which wouldn’t help it much.
Apparently the smaller cracks form through the growth of the skin itself; the outermost layer of skin gets thicker and bends as new layers form underneath, until the brittle outer material fractures. If this didn’t happen elephants would shed their skin much like we do (in tiny flakes and slowly, not in one piece like a snake), which also wouldn’t help much. They’d get pretty hot, pretty quickly.
Whilst animal behaviour is usually what draws people to wildlife areas, knowing how their bodies work and are actually put together helps enormously when it comes to interpreting exactly what an animals is doing. And that’s as true for a bullfrog or a Wahlberg’s eagle as it is for the largest land mammal on earth.