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Amazing elephant anatomy

There's so much more to elephants than meets the eye
  • @helena_williams

With their dangling dexterous trunks, mighty tusks and tremendous ears, they look like fantastical beasts anyway. But the elephant’s amazing anatomy is more than just skin deep.


The African elephant’s trunk, which is essentially a long nose and the equivalent of a human’s upper lip and nose, contains an estimated 100,000 different muscles (there are only around 640 in the human body!). They use their trunks for smelling, breathing, snorkelling, drinking, grabbing – and of course trumpeting.

The boneless proboscis are strong enough to kill a lion, but gentle enough to caress a baby elephant. They also have two finger-like members on the end of their trunks for picking up delicate objects. Cute.


African elephants regulate body temperature through their huge ears, which are about one-sixth of the size of their entire bodies. The ears cool down warm blood by filtering it through the network of tiny blood vessels found in the wide, thin surface area of the outer ear tissue. Cooler blood then circulates to the rest of the body.

Ears are also used for signalling. When an elephant feels threatened, it will spread its ears out to the side of its head, increasing its frontal area and creating a large and pretty intimidating-looking creature.


The elephant’s tusks are extremely elongated, continuously growing upper incisors (the equivalent of a human’s front teeth), used for digging, tearing and fighting. Often, an elephant will use one tusk a lot more than the other - just like a left or right-handed person.

Elephants have a total 24 molar teeth during their lifetime, which grow from the back of the jaw and then slowly move forward as the teeth in front wear down and fragment.

An elephant’s life is limited by its teeth, because once the last molar has worn out it will be unable to chew its food properly and die of starvation.


Like bird bones, the elephant’s skull has lots of tiny air pockets to keep it light (relatively. The average skull of an adult elephant weighs around 115 pounds). This, plus particularly large neck muscles, allows them to eat and drink without struggling with an extremely heavy head.


Because of the way their feet are formed, elephants essentially walk on tiptoe. Their body weight is evenly distributed across the fatty connective tissue at the heel. This tissue acts as a ‘shock absorber’ and allows the elephant to move silently.


An elephant’s skin is extremely sensitive. Elephants will protect themselves from the sun and pests by wallowing in mud or flinging sand over their bodies, which will change their apparent colour from greyish black to the colour of the soil around them. 


Elephants have the longest pregnancy over any other mammal – an astonishing 22 months (more than double that of a human, which is usually nine months). Baby elephants weigh up to 200 pounds at birth.

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