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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding

Anatomy & Physiology

  • Trunk and flexible "finger" at tip allow precision in feeding; can grasp a single flower
  • Molar teeth rasp-like, with ridges of enamel suited for grinding coarse and silica-rich plants
  • Considered a non-ruminant, but has large caecum and colon for fermentation and digestion
  • Digestive strategy: pass large amounts of low quality forage pass through digestive tract quickly
  • No gall bladder; eat low-fat, high fiber diet
  • Defecate as often as 15 to 20 times per day; wild herd members often defecate at the same time

Feeding

Are both browsers (feeding on shrubs and trees) and grazers (feeding on grass)

Can consume many species of plants, as well as twigs and bark but usually only a few plant taxa

  • 112 species of plants in a study in southern India, 400 species recorded in Malaysia
  • Choice of plants varies with seasons
    • Feed on mostly browse plants during dry season
    • Shift to grass in first part of wet season;
    • Return to browse feeding after heavy rains (when grass less nutritious)

Strategies for obtaining grass include

  • Dislodge clumps with feet, gather a pile of grass, grab with trunk, smack against leg to knock off dirt, put in mouth when dirt-free
  • Wash clumps by moving back and forth with trunk in water

Usually do not feed for more than a few days in one place

Drink every day when available; stay close to a source of fresh water

  • Can ingest over 100 liters (26 gallons) at one time
  • Drink up to 225 liters (59 gallons) per day
  • If no water available, dig with forefeet and trunks for subsoil water; wallows created in this manner

Anecdotal evidence reports elephants fond of alcohol; reports of raiding illicit liquor stores in the forest (Sukamar 89)
Adults eat approx. 150kg (330 lbs) daily; approximately 1.5 – 2% (dry weight) of body weight
Salt needed in diet; migrate to deposits regularly and excavate with tusks if necessary

Browsers and Grazers

Two Asian Elephants eating

Connie (in front) and Shaba (behind) began their day nibbling fresh ficus in their new home at the San Diego Zoo.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Dinner Time

Asian Elephant (left) eating from a tree with African Elephant (right)

Asian Elephant Mary (left) eating from a tree with African Elephant Mila (right)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Poole (1996)
Santiapelli & Suprahman (1986)
Sukumar (1989, 1994)

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