Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When most people think of elephants they picture tons of lumbering body mass, a fabulously agile trunk, imposing curved tusks and giant ears. What many people don’t know is why an elephant’s skin is so wrinkly, what life is like for a young calf surrounded by numerous doting elephantine women, and the shared behaviours between the world’s largest land mammal and humans?

The more wrinkles the better

An elephant’s skin is thick and riddled with wrinkles. These help to trap water when the elephant bathes, renders the water slower to evaporate, and keeps the elephant’s body temperature down. However, the wrinkles and thick skin do little to protect elephants from pesky insects in the burning African sun. To make themselves less alluring, or rather to make their skin less appealing to insects, they spray themselves with, and wallow, in mud. This creates an extra layer of cover and also helps to cool them down.

Life In the nursery with aunty and nanny

In the all female herd - bulls move on at age 14 to join other male herds - the women act as governesses. This is excellent training for when they have toddlers of their own. Mums have babies once every five years or so, so every calf is critical to the herd’s survival, and all the ladies chip in to do their bit. Much like human infants that suck their thumbs, baby elephants have been known to suck their trunks. At four months or so a calf becomes more enterprising with its trunk and starts using it to clutch at grass and other food.

More agile than a gymnast

When these little cuties turn five they weigh a whopping 1 ton and, start experiment more with their trunks and learn how to fend for themselves in earnest. However, it takes huge practice and plenty of patience to learn to nimbly use its more than 40 000 trunk muscles. That’s arguably more dexterity in one limb than an Olympic gymnast’s entire body. The trunk is actually an extension of the upper lip and nose with two incredibly clever finger-like tips.

Shared human qualities

Elephants are known for their compassion. This is demonstrated in their unconditional care for their injured and in the way they visibly grieve when one of them passes away. Their immense capacity for memory means they forget neither their bonds with one another nor their grudges. Much like humans, when a long lost friend returns they celebrate by turning in circles, wildly flapping their ears (a bit like joyously clapping hands) and trumpeting.

Images courtesy of Jan Van Huyssteen.

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