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

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)
* Size similar to that of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)

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
    • 5 toes on each foot (from Nowak 1999)
      • Outer toes may be vestigial
    • Nails
      • Five nails on each forefoot
      • 3 on each hindfoot
  • 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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