Elephas maximusAsiatic elephant

Geographic Range

Parts of India and Southeast Asia, including Sumatra and Borneo. Asian elephants were formerly widely distributed south of the Himalayas, throughout Southeast Asia, and in China as far north as the Yangtze River.

Habitat

Asian elephants mainly use scrub forest, although their habitat can vary. They can be found in the jungle, but generally on the edge where open, grassy areas are accessible. They prefer areas that combine grass, low woody plants, and forest. Elephants rarely forage in one area for more than a few days in a row.

Physical Description

Head and body length is 550 to 640 cm and shoulder height is 250 to 300 cm. The skin is thick and dry, and the few hairs are stiff. Skin color varies from grey to brown. In contrast to African elephants, Asian elephants have ears that are much smaller, the back is not as sloping, the head rather than the shoulders is the highest part of the body, the trunk has a single finger-like projection rather than two, and the hind foot has 4 nails rather than 3. The cylindrical feet consist of reduced phalanges resting on a pad of elastic tissue. The cerebral hemisphere is quite convoluted, resembling that of humans and dolphins. The elephant's teeth are unique. They have a limited number of very large teeth that move forward in the mouth as the animal ages; as the front teeth are worn away with use they are replaced from behind. If an elephant lives long enough to have used up all of its teeth it then starves to death. In males, a pair of incisors is elongated (growing 17 cm per year throughout the animal's life) into tusks. Unlike African elephant females, Asian females do not bear tusks.

  • Range mass
    3000 to 5000 kg
    6607.93 to 11013.22 lb
  • Range length
    550 to 640 cm
    216.54 to 251.97 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    2336.5 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Female Asian elephants bear a single calf (usually) after a gestation of more than a year and a half (18 to 22 months). Their estrus cycle is about 22 days, out of which they are receptive to copulation on only one day, the first day of estrus. There is no seasonality in their reproduction. Females on good quality habitats give birth every three to four years, while the interbirth interval can be much longer among females inhabiting poor quality areas. Newborns weigh about 100 kg and can stand soon after birth. The infant may nurse from its mother or from other lactating females. After a few days it can follow its mother as she goes about her normal activities. Young begin to eat some grass after several months but may continue nursing for 18 months. They also eat their mother's dung, which contains nutrients as well as the symbiotic bacteria that aid in the digestion of cellulose. Mothers continue to supervise their young for several years after weaning. Both sexes become sexually mature at about 14 years of age, but males cannot mate until they can dominate other adult males. Males leave their natal herd at this age, but females remain with their female relatives throughout their lives.

  • Breeding interval
    Under the best of circumstances Asian elephants give birth every three to four years.
  • Breeding season
    Births may occur throughout the year.
  • Average number of offspring
    1
  • Average number of offspring
    1
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    18 to 22 months
  • Average weaning age
    48 months
  • Average time to independence
    48 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    14 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    3287 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    14 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    3287 days
    AnAge
  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of Asian elephants is about 70 years.

Behavior

Asian elephants are quite social. Cows form stable herds of about 20 or more of their female relatives. These matriarchal groups are led by the oldest female, who coordinates the herd's movements in search of food and water. Herds may temporarily break up into smaller subgroups, which maintain contact through low frequency long-distance vocalizations. Males are sometimes found with these herds, especially when a female is in estrus. Generally only the dominant male mates with the females. Males may travel alone or in temporary male groups. This species does not appear to be territorial. In the past these animals migrated seasonally, but human activities such as agriculture have now made this virtually impossible. Like other large mammals, elephants are more tolerant of cold than of excessive heat. They spend the hottest part of the day in the shade, and dissipate heat through their ears, which they flap at different speeds according to how hot they are. At full charge, an elephant can run over 48 km/hr.

Home Range

Males have home ranges of about 15 sq km, and herds of females of about 30 sq km (larger in the dry season).

Communication and Perception

Elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes: to dig for water, remove bark from trees, maneuver fallen trees and branches, mark trees, rest their trunk on, fight with, and, in domestic animals, for various kinds of work. Elephants are left or right tusked, just as humans are left or right handed. Their trunks, which are formed by the combination of the elongated nose and upper lip, are also very useful. At the tip is a single, finger-like extension that is very sensitive and can be used for precise manipulation of objects. Trunks are used in eating, drinking, smelling and breathing, touching, vocalizing, washing, dusting (throwing dirt onto the back, possibly as a way of deterring insects), and fighting. The senses of touch and hearing are acute, but eyesight is somewhat poor. Young elephants follow their mothers or older sisters by holding on to their tails. When in danger, elephants run with their tails held up, which may signal the danger to the other members of the herd.

Food Habits

These elephants eat a wide variety of species of vegetation. They prefer grasses, but they also consume bark, roots, leaves, and stems of trees, vines, and shrubs. Most of an adult's activities involve moving toward and eating food. They eat in the morning, evening, and night but rest during the hottest part of the day. An average day's intake is 150 kg of vegetation, of which only about 44% is actually digested (with the aid of symbiotic gut bacteria). Elephants eat long grasses by plucking a "handful" with their trunk and putting the bundle in their mouth. To eat short grasses, they kick up a pile of dirt with their feet and sweep the grass into their mouth, again with the end of their trunk. Shrubs are eaten by breaking off twigs with the trunk and inserting them into the mouth. To eat the bark off larger branches, they hold the branch with their trunk and rotate it while scraping off the bark with their teeth - similar to the way people eat corn on the cob. Elephants also drink at least once a day (140 liters of water may be consumed in just one day) and so are never very far from a water supply.

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems

Predation

When a potential predator such as a lion or tiger threatens a calf, the adults form a defensive circle with the calf in the middle. Adult elephants are probably not susceptible to predation by any species other than humans.

  • Known Predators

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Asian elephants have been domesticated for centuries. Individuals can be trained to reliably perform a wide variety of tasks. They are used as draft animals, for hunting, and for transportation. Ivory from their tusks is used in the manufacture of a number of items, including jewelry.

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Elephants enjoy cultivated foods such as bananas and sugar cane, and so can become crop pests in some areas. Wild elephants are can be aggressive to humans and dangerous.

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Asian elephants have a long history of being hunted by people, originally for food, later for domestic stock and ivory. Poaching for ivory continues to devastate wild populations. They also suffer due to habitat loss caused by agriculture and deforestation. Centuries ago they disappeared from southwestern Asia and most of China. Currently there are only an estimated 28,000 to 42,000 wild Asian elephants remaining. Asian elephants are kept as domestic animals and can be successfully bred in captivity to a limited extent.

Asian elephants are on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Contributors

Deborah Ciszek (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Nowak, R.M. and J.L. Paradiso. 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Shoshani, J. and J.F. Eisenberg. 1982. Elephas maximus. Mammalian Species No. 182, The American Society of Mammalogists.