7 amazing elephant facts you need to know

It is the biggest land mammal on Earth and eats 50 tonnes of food a year. Here’s all you need to know about this (usually) gentle giant.

African elephants

Elephants are the world’s largest land mammals – and, aside from the great apes: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans – the most intelligent.

They are well-known for living in matriarchal (female-led) social groups, and although they are respected and revered by people throughout their ranges in Africa and South Asia, they are also feared because they can be aggressive and dangerous.

Three species of elephant exist today: the savannah and forest elephants in Africa (which were only recently recognised as separate species), and the Asian. While the two African elephants are closely related, the Asian elephant is quite distinct. 



1 Elephants eat a wide range of plant material, including grass, leaves, woody parts of trees and shrubs and flowers and fruits (when available). After rain, they will dig for roots. Asian elephants feed on more than 100 species of plant, and both African and Asian elephants take crops such as millet. An adult needs to eat up to 150kg of food a day – that’s 50 tonnes a year!

2 Tusks are, in fact, hugely enlongated upper incisor teeth embedded deep in the elephant’s head (up to a third of a tusk is hidden from view). They have a variety of uses: as a tool to dig for food or water and to strip bark from trees; as a weapon in battles with rivals; and as a courtship aid – the larger his tusks, the more attractive a male elephant may appear to a female.

3 Musth, pronounced ‘must’, is when males experience increases in testosterone levels of a factor of 60 or more. The changes prepare them for competing for females and make them much more aggressive. The condition is more pronounced in Asian elephants, and can last for up to 60 days. Males in musth carry their heads and ears higher than normal and make a characteristic rumbling sound. 

4 Both African and Asian elephants form female-led, tight-knit groups consisting of a dominant matriarch, her female offspring and other female relations plus their calves. Occasionally, groups will allow ‘strangers’ to join them. Living in groups makes individuals safer and allows them to devote more time to caring for and teaching the young.

Elephants can recognise themselves in mirrors. Scientists believe this is a sign of greater self-awareness. In one study, an Asian elephant called Happy repeatedly touched an ‘X’ painted on her forehead while looking in the mirror, an indication that she knew she was looking at her own reflection. Most animals will assume that a reflection is another animal, and look for it behind the mirror.

6 Elephants have amazing long-term memories. Scientists studying three herds in Tanzania found that, during a lengthy drought, the two herds led by older matriarchs left the drought area in search of water, and more of their group survived as a result. The scientists concluded that these older females had remembered a drought that had occurred more than 30 years earlier and knew what to do. One female elephant also recognised zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton even though she hadn’t seen him for four years.

Elephants appear to understand what other elephants are feeling. Experiments show that when one elephant is unhappy, others share their feelings, something known as ‘emotional contagion’. In these situations, they will go over to their ‘friend’ and comfort them, often by putting their trunk into the other’s mouth, something that elephants find reassuring. Elephants will also assist other injured elephants, and even appear to mourn their dead.



  • Elephants may be able to detect a thunderstorm from 280km away, and will head towards it, looking for water. In 2004, elephants appeared to head for higher ground before the Asian tsunami struck. 
  • Elephants produce a lot of methane gas as a by-product of digestion. Scientists estimate that the amount of methane they emit in one day would be enough to power a car for 32km.



1 Ears The African elephant’s ears are much bigger than those of its Asian cousin, extending above the shoulder. It’s said that the former’s ears are the same shape as Africa, while the latter’s look like India.

2 Tusks Both male and female African elephants grow long tusks, but only male Asian elephants do (and not all males). Some female Asian elephants grow ‘tushes’ – barely visible, stumpy tusks.

3 Head African elephants have more rounded foreheads, while Asian elephants have twin domes on their heads with an indent in the middle.


African elephant © iStock


4 Trunk The tip of an African elephant’s trunk has two fingers or ‘lips’; the Asian elephant’s trunk only has one.

5 Back While the African elephant’s back is concave (with a small hollow in it), the Asian elephant’s is convex (slightly domed).

6 Size In general, African elephants are larger. Adult males weigh up to six tonnes, while male Asian elephants usually weigh no more than five tonnes.


Asian elephant © iStock 


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