No one can argue that watching a herd of elephants or even just one lone bull is fascinating – not only in terms of observing their behaviour but also admiring their unique physical features. From their sheer enormity in size, the dexterity of their trunks, the complexity of their skin, the stunning long eyelashes, the list just goes on. So while watching these majestic giants I ofter ponder over these characteristics. The other day one particular question stuck in my mind – do elephants wrinkle with age?
It seems like a simple question since elephants are born with wrinkles they would surely just get more wrinkles with age- but there is more to this than initially meets the eye. To start off you have to consider why elephants have so many wrinkly cracks and crevices covering their body in the first place. This is a mechanism of thermoregulation (controlling one’s body temperature) that is often discussed in the heat of summer when watching elephants throw water and mud all over themselves.
An elephant’s intricate network of crevices enables up to 10 times more moisture to be trapped against their bodies for longer than if their skin was smooth, and in the process aids in cooling themselves down. This is a vital adaptation to elephants, unlike most mammals, elephants do not have sweat glands (except for a few situated in their feet which don’t help much for dissipating heat). Not only does the act of throwing mud over themselves or mud bathing also enable moisture to be stored in their wrinkles, it also adds a layer of protection from the sun and wards off unwanted ectoparasites.
The next step before you can determine if an elephant wrinkles with age is determining how old the elephant actually is. This is no easy task unless the individual elephant has been seen regularly from birth, and with 3.5 million hectares for elephants to roam from Londolozi and throughout the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, we seldom see the same herds regularly. Luckily Ranger Shaun D’Araujo has a few tips on how to estimate the age of an elephant that we can use to help us. Starting with determining the sex of the elephant, then watching their feeding behaviour as young calves, to then looking at the length and thickness of tusks in sub-adults. To the rough size of the adult elephant, the tattered/frayed edge of the ears can contribute to an estimate. Finally one can easily start to notice the sunken in temples of bulls over 30 years and cows over 50 years of age.
Lastly, we have to accept that animals will never wrinkle as much as humans do because we live a relatively long life compared to other species. Elephants with one of the longest lifespans usually reach around 60 years. As humans, we also don’t have hair or fur covering our bodies that will protect our skin from the sun as much as elephants do and certainly don’t throw mud over ourselves as often as elephants do. Simply put, we have more time to get wrinkly! What humans and elephants do have in common is that we both continuously develop new skin cells but unlike humans who shed dead skin cells, elephants’ dead skin cells build up over time. Their skin then thickens over time, eventually exerting enough pressure to generate cracks which then bend their outer layer of skin, creating more sags and folds and increasing the network of ‘wrinkles’ that helps them stay cool… and starts to give away their age!
So next time you see a wrinkly elephant, and perhaps wonder the same thing as I did, hopefully, this post has helped you to understand the intricacies of an elephant’s skin as something that makes them such special animals!