Monday, February 22, 2016

Apple #728: Elephants

Today I saw a little video on facebook of an elephant picking up a couple pieces of trash and putting them into a trash can.  I can't find the video now, no idea where it was filmed or any context for the elephant doing this. But it got me thinking about elephants.

You may remember an entry I did a while back on Elephant Feet. I just re-read that entry, and there's a lot of interesting stuff in there that I had forgotten.  Tracts! Varying numbers of toenails!

Anyway, I really like elephants. Fascinating, and rather marvelous that they've put up with us as long as they have. They're probably the most recognizable animal of all, and we think we know all the basic things there are to know about them.  So I want to put together some facts about elephants that maybe you don't already know.

A herd of elephants in the forest. Look how closely together they're all standing. Nobody but nobody is getting past them. African forest elephants are now considered to be a completely separate species than African savanna elephants.
(Photo from Endangered Earth)

  • Just as we are right- or left-handed, elephants are right- or left-tusked. The tusk that the elephant uses more often will be smaller than the other due to wear.

Looks like that largest elephant is probably left-tusked.
(Photo from WildAid

  • Adult elephants eat 300 to 400 pounds of vegetation per day. They eat grass and leaves, as I'm sure you know, but they also eat the roots, and the bark, as well as bamboo and cultivated crops like bananas and sugarcane, especially if their grasslands have been taken over by farmers.
  • An adult elephant drinks 30 to 50 gallons of water per day.
  • This is why elephants spend so much of their time on the move, looking for water and vegetation to eat.  

Holy bananas, that's an enormous animal. This is Satao, a bull elephant who has coated himself in red dust. Sadly, Satao was killed for his ivory in 2014. Unfortunately, you can't really talk about elephants without talking about the killing-for-ivory.
(Photo from Colorado State University, sourced from the University of Oxford)

  • Elephants cool themselves off in several ways:
    • their huge ears radiate heat
    • they spray themselves with water using their trunks
    • they coat themselves with dust or mud to protect themselves against sunburn (the dust also helps protect against parasites and insects)

Look at that happy bathing elephant.
(Photo from Pinterest, looks like it was posted by Pat Galipeau in Nepal)

  • Elephants don't sleep very much. They can lie down to sleep, but not for very long since their internal organs will get crushed by their own body weight, or the weight of their bodies pressing against the ground can get really uncomfortable on, say, the hipbone or the side of the face. So they only sleep lying down for maybe 30 minutes to 1 hour at a time. They lie down on one side, sleep for 30 minutes, get up, then lie down on the other side for another 30. They'll do this for about 4 hours and then they're on the move again, looking for more food.
  • They can sleep standing up -- most fully grown elephants only sleep standing up -- but again, not for very long stretches. Sometimes they're being vigilant, or perhaps it's only that they're used to sleeping for short periods of time.

Doesn't look very comfortable, does it?
(Photo from Charlie's Crib)

  • Elephants are extremely important to their landscape. Not only do they alter it enormously by tearing down tree branches and uprooting trees, but they also disperse the trees' seeds. It is estimated that at least 1/3 of the species of trees in central Africa's forests depend on the elephant to disperse their seeds for them. 
  • Elephants do not like bugs. If an acacia tree is infested with ants, elephants won't eat its branches. This is because they do not want to get ants crawling up their trunk. (Augh! Can you imagine? That would be awful.)
  • They also don't like bees and will avoid beehives. So farmers are now protecting their crops against elephants by establishing beehives along the borders of their farmland. This doubly helps their crops because they get pollinators as well as protection.
  • The mother elephant carries her elephant baby for 22 months. That's the longest gestation time of any mammal. A calf weighs 200 to 250 pounds at birth and stands 3 feet tall. That means the mother elephant is carrying around a 100-pound baby for over a year.
  • A baby elephant's trunk has no muscle tone.  That means the baby can't use the trunk at all for several months, until it develops those muscles. From birth, it suckles from its mother by mouth.

Elephants use their trunks like straws when they drink: they suck water partway up their trunks and hold it, then bring their trunks to their mouths and squirt the water in. 
(Photo from Wonderopolis)

  • But the elephant's trunk is pretty much indispensable. Its eyesight is quite poor, but its trunk with its 150,000 muscle parts is profoundly capable.  The trunk can grab and pull things with great strength, or it can caress another elephant's face with great gentleness, the trunk can smell food a great distance away, and of course the trunk is the tube through which the elephant trumpets, calls, tweets, and makes those sonic rumbles that are too low for humans to hear, but which the elephants can detect from up to 5 miles away.
  • The way that elephants detect those rumbles, by the way, is with their feet. The sound travels into their feet, up their legs, and ultimately to the middle ear. They use echolocation, determining how long it takes for the signals to arrive at each of their front feet as an indicator of the distance of the origin of the sound.
  • An elephant's sense of smell is extremely sensitive -- they are the best smellers in the animal kingdom. They can smell water from up to 12 miles away.
  • But it turns out that if an elephant is using its trunk like a hand to hold onto something, that truncates some of its smelling capabilities, and it also keeps the elephant from being able to feel around for the food with the end of its trunk. This is why experiments designed by humans to test elephants' ability to pick up sticks to get to food often were not successful.

I guess this means that the whole time elephants are painting (to please us, mind), they can't smell too well.
(Photo from Listverse)

  • Other tests that gave elephants the opportunity to roll objects into position and stand on them like stepstools to reach the food have been much more successful. Recent research of this sort has proven that elephants at least match chimps in terms of use of tools and problem-solving abilities.
Video below shows Kandula, an 8-year-old Asian elephant at the Smithsonian zoo, rolling a cube into place to reach food dangling from above. No one showed him how to do this; he smelled the food, found the cube, and put 2 & 2 together.

  • We have also come to understand that elephants experience and express a wide range of emotions and associated actions -- grief, consolation, stress, depression, joy. 
  • Elephants have been seen inspecting the bones of a dead elephant, snuffling them with their trunks, kicking sand or even laying palm branches over them. They do not do the same thing for the bones of other animals.
  • However, after one man who studied and lived with a herd of African elephants died, the herd arrived at his house and demonstrated signs of mourning him.
  • Females live in highly social herds that cooperate with each other to solve problems, including one instance when a young elephant bounded into the wrong herd and was effectively kidnapped by the new herd.  Her original herd banded together to confront the kidnapping herd, and they released her.

Video below shows a baby elephant collapsing in a road and several elephants from its herd coming to help. It looks like the baby elephant is having trouble standing, or something's not right with its balance, and eventually the elephants figure out he needs help on one side, and they support him on that side until he's able to stand and walk off the road. This is one of the things I love about elephants: they're so enormous and powerful, but they can be so gentle with each other.

A baby elephant among its herd looks like a pretty good place to be.
(Award-winning photo by Blaine Harrington)

  • About 1 in 3 elephants recognize themselves in a mirror. This may not sound like much, but only about 1 in 5 chimps recognize themselves in a mirror. This suggests that elephants' self-awareness is better than most other mammals'.
  • Adult males tend to live most of the time on their own, but they are not as completely solitary as people have thought. They often encounter other males on their search for food and water, and they may band together in groups of 12 or 15.

Video below shows Shirley and Jenny, two circus elephants being reunited after 20+ years at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. Whoever thought there should be bars between them did not know much about elephants. The way they embrace each other with their trunks at the end, you can't tell me that's not love.

  • And for the big finish: elephants don't actually like peanuts.
Ferris Jabr, The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized, Scientific American, February 26, 2014
Smithsonian, 14 Fun Facts About Elephants
World Wildlife Foundation, Elephant
Defenders of Wildlife, Basic Facts about Elephants
National Geographic Society, African Elephant
African Wildlife Foundation, Elephant
San Diego Zoo Animals, Elephant (they have a live elephant cam. As I type this at 11:15 at night, they elephants are walking by.)
Fact Slides, 28 Facts About Elephants
Modern Ghana, Do You Know Elephants Stand To Sleep?

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