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African Elephants (Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Update in Progress

Dear Readers,

This fact sheet, like an elephant, is aging gracefully. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is working to bring you an updated version of the African Elephants Fact Sheet with new science and conservation information. Thanks for your patience, as our tusks go to the ground and dig into this huge project. Please check back soon. SDZWA team members can email questions to

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Physical Characteristics

  Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) Forest Elephant (L. cyclotis)
  Bull (male) Cow (female) Bull (male) Cow (female)
Body Weight 4,000-6,300 kg (8,818-13,889 lbs) 2,400-3,500 kg (5,291-7,716 lb) 2,700-6,000 kg (5,952-13,228 lb) 2,700-6,000 kg (5,952-13,228 lb)
Shoulder Height 4 m (13 ft ) 2.2 - 2.6 m (7.2-8.5 ft) 2.4 – 2.8 m (8-9 ft) 1.8 - 2.4 m (5.9-7.9 ft)

General Appearance

Body shape

  • Largest living land mammal
    • Tip of trunk to tip of tail 7-8.8m (23-29 ft)
  • Distinguishing features
    • A proboscis or trunk
    • Relatively large ears
    • Long tusks
    • Columnar legs
    • Thick skin (pachydermous)
    • Lack of hair on most of adult body

Head and facial features

  • Ears
    • Size
      • Very large; 2 times the size those of the Asian elephant
      • Large surface area aids in thermoregulation (maintenance of body temperature)
        • A positive correlation exists between the number of times an elephant flaps its ears and increasing air temperature
    • Shape
      • Often likened to the continent of Africa
    • Used to communicate in social interactions and provide balance
      • Spread ears indicate threat
      • Position ears to aid balance
    • Acute hearing
      • Hear low frequency sounds better than any animal tested, one study (Heffner & Heffner 1980)
  • Trunk
    • Size
      • Length: 6-6.5 ft
      • Weight:150-200 kg (330-440 lb)
    • Structure
      • Fusion of the nose and upper lip
      • 2 nostrils set at the tip
      • Muscles
        • 8 major muscles on each side of trunk
        • 150,000 muscle fascicles (portions of muscles) for the entire trunk
      • No bone or cartilage within the trunk
    • Function (from Shoshani 1992)
      • Nose through which air is inhaled
        • 70% of air inhaled is through the trunk, the rest comes through the mouth
        • May have developed for snorkeling
          • Modern day elephant is only mammal that can remain submerged far below the surface of the water while snorkeling (West 2001) (also discussed in How Elephants Snorkel)
      • Tool for lifting, smelling, spraying dust, grass, and water on body
        • Tip prehensile; capable of grasping objects
        • Small "fingers" on the top and bottom of the trunk aid in securing grip
      • Used for sound production, courtship, calf assurance during nursing, behavioral signals and displays
      • Does not act as a straw
        • Elephants do not "drink" water through the trunk
        • Water is sucked up and squirted into the mouth
          • The trunk can hold more than 8 liters (2 gallons) of water
  • Tusks
    • A single pair, most commonly
      • More may result from abnormal branching as a calf
      • Present in both males and females
        • Length approximately equal in both sexes
    • Structure
      • Incisor teeth
        • Unlike those of pigs, hippopotami and walruses whose tusks are specializations of the canine teeth
      • Composed of dentine with small enamel tip
      • Ivory
        • Term “ivory” should be applied only to elephants and mammoths
        • Hardness of ivory depends on the animal’s origin, habitat and sex
        • Use of ivory for piano keys
          • Ivory keys produced from the late 1800s until the early 1900s (Chadwick 1992)
          • A standard keyboard used 1.5 lbs. of ivory
        • A pattern in ivory of crisscross lines forming small diamond shaped areas (Schreger lines) are seen in cross section (Shoshani 1992)
          • These patterns are unique to elephants and mammoths
          • Often used by customs officials to determine source of the ivory
    • Shape
      • Savannah elephant: curved out and forward
      • Forest elephant: point straight down
    • Size
      • Record length and weight
        • Record length: 3.264 m (10 ft 8.5 in)
        • Record weight: 102.7 kg (226 lb 7oz)
      • Average size may be decreasing
        • Data collected during the last few decades suggests a decrease of 1-2 lbs/year (from Shoshani 1992, p. 73)
          • 1970: average tusk weight 26 lb 7 oz
          • 1990: average tusk weight 6 lbs 10 oz
    • Development
      • Continually grow
        • Size may be used to determine age
        • Elephants are “right-tusked” or “left- tusked” (one tusk shows definite wear with age)
      • Growth rate c. 17 cm/year (c. 7 in/year) (Fowler 1992)
    • Function
      • Digging (for water, salt, roots)
      • Stripping tree bark
      • Lifting
      • Marking trees
      • Sexual display
      • Defense and offense
      • Protection for trunk


  • Skull
    • Weight in adults averages 52.2 kg (115 lb)
    • Cranium filled with honeycomb-like spaces which allow the large skull to be relatively light-weight
  • Neck
    • Short
    • Individuals cannot turn the head completely to the side
  • Rib cage
    • 20-21 pairs of ribs
    • Last 4 pairs are floating
  • Limbs and feet
    • Orientation of bones in limbs is almost vertical
      • Supports enormous weight but prohibits any type of leaping movement
    • Forefeet are digitigrade (weight is on digits similar to tapirs and hippos)
    • Hind feet semi-plantigrade


  • Highly specialized dentition(from Vaughn et al. 2010)
    • 2 upper incisors (tusks)
    • Usually six cheek teeth in each half of each jaw in a lifetime
      • Erupt in conveyor-belt fashion, one after another (don't erupt vertically)
      • Only one or two functional in each jaw half at a time
      • Old worn-out teeth pushed forward and out
      • Last set usually lost between 60 and 70 years of age (Eltringham 1991)
    • Molars
      • Replaced as an individual ages
        • May produce 6 sets during a single lifetime
      • Replacement ages
        • 1.5 to 2 years
        • 3.5 to 4 years
        • 8 to 10 years
        • 20 to 25 years
        • 40 to 45 years
      • A single molar can weigh over 5 kg (11 lbs). (Fowler 1993)


  • Color
    • Gray typically
    • Often appear brown because of mud baths
      • Frequent bathing, showering, and powerdering (with dirt) is important for skin care
  • Thickness varies
    • Paper thin inside ears, mouth, and anus
    • 1 inch thick on back and head
  • Nerves and glands
    • Well-supplied with nerves
    • No visible sweat glands
  • Sparsely haired adults
    • Longer hair on tip of tail, chin, elbow and knees
    • Babies are covered with hair which decreases with age becoming short


  • Toes
    • Loxodonta africana (savannah elephant): 4-5 nails on forefoot, 3-5 on hindfoot (Tassey and Shoshani 2013; Nowak 2018)
      • Parker and Graham (2017) found that 5 nails on forefoot and 4 nails on hindfoot was most common in 3 populations from East Africa
    • L. cyclotis (forest elephant): 5 nails on forefoot, 4-5 on hindfoot (Tassey and Shoshani 2013; Nowak 2018)
    • Asian elephants may have different number of nails
      • Commonly, 5 nails (hooves) on forefoot and 4 nails on hindfoot (Nowak 2018)
  • Foot pads
    • Cushioned
      • Structure helps absorb chock
      • May serve as sensory receptors (from Weissengruber et al. 2006)
        • Vater-Pacinian cells in the cushion respond to pressure and vibration
        • Meissner nerve endings in adjacent skin detect light touch


  • Mammary Glands
    • 2 located between forelegs
    • Females produce milk that is 20% fat, 7% sugar and 3-4% protein
    • Fat content 5 times higher than in the cow
  • Scent glands (temporal glands)
    • Located on the cheeks between the eye and ear are modified sweat glands
    • Produce an oily secretion containing cholesterol, phenol and cresol
      • Secrete throughout the year, becoming especially active in bulls during mating season
    • They can weigh up to 3 kg in males
      • Rarely over 1 kg in females

Internal Organs

  • Organs are not proportionately larger than other mammals
  • Heart
    • Weight
      • 27 - 46 lb (12-21 kg)
    • Shape
      • Unique, with a double pointed apex instead of the typical cone shaped mammalian heart
        • Manatees and dugongs also have double apex hearts
    • Heart rate
      • 25-30 beats/min, standing
      • 72-98 beats/min, lying down
  • Lungs
    • Anatomy unique among mammals
      • Pleural cavity is obliterated by slippery connective tissue
        • In all other mammals, the lungs are surrounded by 2 layers of a thin membrane with a teaspoon of liquid in between
      • Enables elephants to withstand the extreme differences in pressure above and below water without rupturing blood vessels in the lining of the lungs
        • Animal can swim underwater using its trunk as a snorkel
        • Elephants' closest relatives are manatees, dugongs and sea cows that live full-time in the water
    • Respiratory rate
      • 4-6 breaths/min, when calm
      • Doubles when active
  • Lack gall bladder
  • Testes
    • Located inside abdomen near the kidneys
  • Brain
    • Weight over 11 lb
      • 1/500th of the body weight
      • Human brain weighs about 1.6 kg (3 lbs 8oz) or 1/50th of the body weight


  • Eyesight poor
    • Best in dim light
  • Tear ducts are vestigial
    • Harderian glands (accessory lachrymal glands associated with the nictitating membrane or third eyelid) lubricate the eyes

Distinguishing features of savannah and forest elephants

  • Body shape
    • Savannah elephants more "slender"
      • Back markedly concave
    • Forest elephants more compact
      • Back straight



Grasping Trunks

two African elephants eating

Elephant trunks are used for lifting heavy objects, snorkeling in water, and communicating through touch.

A trunk can reach up to 6.5 feet in length and weigh as much as 440 pounds. These helpful appendages are formed by a fusion of the nose and upper lip. Eight muscles on either side give the animals great dexterity.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Chadwick (1992)
Eltringham (1991)
Estes (1990)
Fowler (1993)
Grubb & Groves (2000)
Heffner & Heffner (1980)
Mikota (1994)
Nowak (1999)
Shoshani (1992)
Vaughn et al. (2010)
West (2001)

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