There is nothing quite like finding yourself amongst a large herd of elephants as they move past your vehicle. There’s an incredible aura of stillness and silence as we watch these giants traverse the land around us. I am always overwhelmed with a feeling of insignificance and enormous reverence when I get to spend time with the largest land mammals on this planet. How lucky are we… After the legendary Leopards of Londolozi, elephants are one of my favourites so, in this blog, I want to highlight merely a few of their incredible traits. How many elephant facts do you know?
Elephants absorb and process multiple sensory inputs simultaneously. Not only are they sophisticatedly in tune with their own senses and communication amongst their own species, but elephants are also constantly interpreting and absorbing biotic and abiotic environmental inputs from their surroundings.
What makes elephants so Unique?
Elephant Facts: Memory
As the largest land mammals, it is no surprise that elephants have very large and well-developed brains, weighing an average of 4.8 kg (about three to four times larger than the human brain). Their cerebral cortex responsible for cognitive processing makes up a large portion of this mass. The neocortex, which in humans is the largest part of the cerebral cortex responsible for enhanced cognitive functions such as working memory, planning, spatial orientation, speech and language, is also particularly large and highly convoluted in elephants.
As a result, elephants can integrate information from multiple sensory input sources such as smell, hearing, taste, and touch in addition to their ability to store, recall, and utilize the information, all proving elephants do in fact have an exceptional memory.
Elephants, particularly the matriarchs within a herd, can remember traversing pathways and routes to food and water; know where preferable food sources are located; return to these exact locations over hundreds of kilometres; and know, adjusting for the weather occurring in a given season, when to arrive when the fruit is ripe. In addition to this ability that depends heavily on spatial recall, matriarchs carry generations of knowledge and wisdom passed on by successive predecessors and these memories are imperative to the survival of the herd.
Elephant facts: Hearing
Elephant ears are capable of detecting low frequencies of 5 to 16 Hz in addition to high frequencies of between 12,000 to 20,000 Hz. This compares to humans that can detect sounds in a frequency range from only about 20 Hz to 20,000Hz. This means that we as humans cannot hear/interpret a large portion of elephant communication.
Their lower wavelengths are better suited for long-distance communication, which is why elephants often communicate with their characteristic ‘rumble’. This ability gives elephants the advantage of communicating with each other over distances as far as 2.5 miles (up to 4km).
Elephant facts: Vision
The most dominant feature of an elephant’s eyes is its long eyelashes which prevent sand, dirt, or other debris from entering their eyes. They also have a so-called ‘third eyelid’ which moves across their eyes vertically as opposed to horizontally like the upper and lower eyelids. This third eyelid is known as a nictitating membrane and it helps clean and provides the eyes with moisture (which is why it sometimes looks like they are crying with a milky teardrop seen in the corner of their eye).
Their eyes are located on the side of their head. This positioning allows them to have peripheral eye vision, enabling them to see across a wide angle. Overall, however, their vision is relatively moderate but elephants do not rely heavily on their vision. In comparison to their other senses, their primary method of orienting themselves is by their incredibly sensitive trunk which is involved in sensory input through touch as well as smell.
Elephant facts: Touch
An elephant‘s trunk is made of muscle; approximately 40,000 muscles to be more precise which is significantly more than the total of 639 muscles you would find in a human body! Among many other things, elephants use their trunks to communicate, drink, show affection to offspring, play, show aggression as well as defend themselves.
In addition to their trunk, elephants can also detect the vocalizations of their companions seismically. When an elephant vocalizes, a replica of this signal transmits separately through the ground. As humans, we often hear very little of this form of communication, usually only through low rumble vocalizations. We understand elephants are able to discriminate between these vocalizations through their sensitive feet. They can similarly detect earth tremors, thunderstorms and the hoof beats of distant animals.
The reason they are capable of having an extraordinary sense of touch is because of cells called Pacinian corpuscles. Not only do they have these cells in their trunk, but also on the soles of their feet.
Pacinian corpuscles: are rapidly adapting (phasic) receptors that detect gross pressure changes and vibrations in the skin. They represent special nerve endings that serve as mechanoreceptors sensitive to vibration and pressure and are crucial for one’s perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body.
Elephant facts: Smell
In addition to an elephant’s trunk being imperative for their sense of touch, it also provides them with a tremendous sense of smell. Elephant nostrils are located at the tip of their trunk, and they’ll use their sense of smell to find their next meal, water and avoid danger. In addition, they also have a vomeronasal organ that is essentially a patch of sensory cells within the main nasal chamber that detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles. They use their trunk to collect odour particles and then place their trunks back in their mouth for the vomeronasal organ to interpret and process the chemical pheromones. You often see this interaction when elephants are greeting each other like in the image below.
Overall elephants are phenomenal creatures that grace this land with their presence and for us to be able to watch them move about on their daily missions and expose us to all of their unique characteristics is what makes every game drive so special.