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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Attribute Male Female
Body Weight About 3,600 kg (7,900 lb), on average (up to 6,000 kg, or 13,000 lb) About 2,700 kg (6,000 lb), on average (up to 4,200 kg, or 9,000 lb)
Head–body Length 5.5–6.4 m (18–21 ft) same as males
Tail Length 1.2–1.5 m (4–5 ft) same as males
Shoulder Height* 2.7 m (8.9 ft), on average (up to 3.4 m, or 11 ft) 2.4 m (7.9 ft), on average (can reach over 2.5 m, or 8.2 ft)


Note: Most of these measurements are based on elephant populations in India, which are larger than individuals that occur farther east. Elephants living in Borneo are considerably smaller (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Wittemyer 2011).

*Population in western Nepal may get slightly taller (Lister and Blashford-Snell 2000, Nowak 2018).

Other sources: Benedict (1936)

General Appearance

Characteristics of all elephants

  • Flexible, muscular trunk
  • Columnar legs
  • Thick skin
  • Sparse patches of hair

Head and neck

  • Topline
  • Forehead
    • Concave (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
  • Mouth
    • Mouth does not open wide (Miall and Greenwood 1878; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Tongue thick (Miall and Greenwood 1878; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
      • Round at base and tapers to a pointed tip
      • Lies in groove of lower mouth/lip
    • Neck
      • Short, which helps elephant’s movement and balance (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
        • Keeps head close to center of gravity
      • Rotation of head very limited, but eyes move substantially (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Eyes
      • Small in relation to body size
      • No true tear ducts
      • Nictitating membrane present (Miall and Greenwood 1878; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)


  • Structure
    • Trunk formed by fusion of nose and upper lip (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
      • Has unusual thick, cylindrical skin
      • Prehensile with one “finger” at trunk tip
        • African elephant has two “fingers”
    • Highly sensitive (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
      • Contains many nerves related to head and neck functions (e.g., biting, chewing, moving facial muscles) (Kaufmann et al. 2022; Purkart et al. 2022)
      • Also see Touch
    • Contains as many as 150,000 muscle units
      • Units layered in multiple directions for extraordinary flexibility
      • Muscle types
        • Longitudinal muscles that run down the full length of the trunk
        • Ring-like muscles that form bands perpendicular to longitudinal muscles
          • More “rings” (annulations) than in African elephant’s trunk (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
  • Function
    • Elephants use trunk to breathe, lift objects, eat, smell, and spray dirt and water on their body (for sun protection and temperature regulation) (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
      • 70% of air inhaled through trunk; remainder inhaled through mouth
    • Trunk also used for communication (sound production, courtship and pheromone detection, calf assurance during nursing), as well as behavioral signals
    • Wrap/grasp objects with trunk (Racine 1980; Kaufmann et al. 2022)
      • Have complex motor control
    • Suction water into trunk and transfer it to their mouth, often by blowing (Racine 1980)
      • Trunk not connected to stomach (i.e., not used like a drinking straw)
    • Trunk tip
      • Highly dexterous; used to grasp food and other objects (Rasmussen and Munger 1996)
      • Indirectly used to smell
        • Chemical compounds touched with trunk tip, then trunk inserted into mouth where olfactory information is sent to the brain
      • Detect vibrations of running animals by placing trunk tip on ground


  • Large, angular (Wittemyer 2011)
    • Smaller than African elephant
  • Highly vascularized (McKay 1973; Mikota 2006)
  • Also used in communication and behavioral displays

Tusks and tushes

  • Females vs. males
    • Female Asian elephants have no tusks or have small tushes (small teeth that rarely extend beyond the mouth) (e.g., Krishnan 1972; Sukumar 1989; Wittemyer 2011)
      • In African elephants, both males and females usually have tusks
    • Only some males have tusks
      • Some males have long tusks (see below)
      • Proportion of tuskless males (called makhnas) in a population varies widely (0 to 100%) (Sukumar 1989; Nowak 2018)
        • Sri Lanka: most males lack tusks (e.g., Katugaha et al. 1999)
        • Northeastern India and Myanmar: many males lack tusks
      • May reflect intensity of past capture or hunting for ivory (Sukumar 1989; Sukumar 2003)
  • Development
    • Incisor teeth become tusks and tushes
    • Composed of dentine (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
  • Tusk functions (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Dig for water, salt, or rocks
    • Move branches
    • Debark trees
    • Rest trunk
    • Possibly for communication or status signaling
    • Defense
  • Tusk size
    • Slimmer and straighter than African elephant tusks
    • Large tusks grow up to 1.8 m (5.9 ft)
      • Longest tusk on record: about 3 m (10 ft) (Smith 1930, cited by Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
      • Heaviest on record weighed 39 kg (86 lb)
    • Tusks grow about 17 cm (7 in per year), depending on nutrition
  • Tush size
    • Tushes barely extend past the mouth
    • For some males, replaced by permanent tusks by 6 to 12 months of age


  • Hind legs
    • Provide propulsion and support body (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
  • Forelegs (Bader et al. 2023)
    • Carry slightly more weight than hindlegs
    • Better forelimb dexterity than African savanna elephant
      • Can rake (gather) foliage using front feet
  • Robust, long leg bones (Bader et al. 2023)
    • Carry heavy body and support movement
    • Leg bones have expanded areas where large muscles attach (Bader et al. 2023)
      • Keep legs stable and helps with rotation
    • Elbow and knee joints adapted to distribute elephant’s heavy mass
  • Hip, knee, and ankle joints
    • Allow stabilization and dexterity, likely for moving through complex forest habitats, on slopes and in valleys, and over wetter terrain (Bader et al. 2023)


  • Foot pads absorb shock and help support body weight
    • Comprised of absorbent, elastic connective tissue


  • Hair tuft at tip (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • May be used to swat insects
  • Anus protected by flap under tail (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)


  • Skin usually dark gray to brown (Wittemyer 2011; Nowak 2018), but some elephants lighter in color (Krishnan 1972; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Mottled white or pink blotches on ears, base of trunk, head, neck, or chest present in some populations
  • Subspecies differences (Wittemyer 2011; Nowak 2018)
    • Elephas maximus maximus
      • Darkest in color
      • Less pigmented than other subspecies
    • Elephas maximus sumatranus
      • Lightest in color
      • Have least amount of depigmentation (skin pigment lost or lighter)


  • Texture
    • Bumpy skin over most of body
    • Wrinkled skin (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Smooth skin on ears, lips, eyelids, and genitalia
      • Generally smoother than comparable areas in African elephants
  • Thickness
    • Overall
      • About 18 mm (0.71 in), on average (Smith 1890; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Thickest body regions
      • Skin on back and haunches
        • About 20 to 30 mm (0.8 to 1 in), depending on size (Smith 1890; Shoshani and et al. 1982)
        • Thinner than skin of African elephant (Spearman 1970)
      • Thick skin provides protection from insect bites and harsh weather
    • Thinnest body regions
      • Ears and certain leg areas
        • Less than 2 mm (0.08 in) thick (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”; Mikota 2006)


  • Body hairs scant; those present often long and bristly (Wittemyer 2011; Nowak 2018, and as noted)
    • Most hairs found on chin, around ear and genitals, tail, eyelids, knees, elbows, and trunk (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Less noticeable in adults than newborns
    • Asian elephants generally more hairy than African elephants
  • Specialty hairs (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Nowak 2018)
    • Long, soft hairs on ear openings and chin/lower lip
    • Short-to-long hairs on trunk
    • Hair tuft at tail tip
  • Newborns (infants)
    • Upright, soft brown hairs produce a “halo effect” (Nowak 2018)
      • Later replaced by short, soft bristles
    • Calves very hairy compared to adults
      • Hairier than African elephant calves


  • Commonly, 5 nails on forefoot and 4 nails on hindfoot (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Tassey and Shoshani 2013; Nowak 2018)
    • African elephants may have a different number of nails
      • Also see Nails in African Elephants Fact Sheet

Sexual Dimorphism

Body size

  • Males considerably larger than females of the same age
  • Height (Mumby et al. 2015)
    • Both sexes reach most of their adult height by about 15 years of age
    • Males gain some additional height up until about 21 years of age
  • Weight (Mumby et al. 2015)
    • Female gain about 80% of their total body weight by about 20 years
      • Continue to grow into their mid-to-late 30s
    • Males continue to gain weight until about 50 years of age


  • Females have a straighter, more squarish (“boxier”) back
  • Male back is more convex and curves more gradually into hindquarters


  • Males have large trunk base
  • Females have a narrower trunk bases


  • Males have bulges above and below eyes
  • Females lack prominent bulges above eyes

Teeth and bones

  • Males have a large head
  • Only males have tusks (although some are tuskless); females have no tusks or only small tushes (small pulpless teeth) (Sukumar 1989; Wittemyer 2011)
  • Males might have more robust humerus leg bones than females; more research needed (Bader et al. 2023)
    • Possibly adapted to support added weight of the head and tusks


Comparison to African elephants

(e.g., Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Nowak 2018)

  • Body smaller than African elephant
  • Ears smaller
  • Forehead flatter
  • Back convex or more level to ground
    • African elephants’ backs are more concave
  • Head is highest point of Asian elephant’s body
    • Top of shoulder (withers) is in African elephants
  • Single “finger” on trunk tip (vs. 2 in African elephants)
  • African elephant also has 1–2 more pairs of ribs and fewer vertebrate

Differences among subspecies

  • Elephas maximus maximus (Sri Lanka)
    • Large head relative to its body (Wittemyer 2011)
    • More commonly has pink pigmentation (Wittemyer 2011)
    • Most lack tusks (Wittemyer 2011)



  • Relatively poor vision but sensitive to movement (Krishnan 1972; McKay 1973; Vidya and Sukumar 2005a)
    • Visual acuity better at close distances
  • Good vision in dull light (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Considerably reduced in bright light
  • Total visual field is a sweep of 313° out of 360° (a 47° blind spot)
    • Horses: 357° visual field
  • Able to see some color


  • Well developed (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Nowak 2018)
  • Hearing range
    • Approximately 16 Hz (low frequency), up to 11 kHz (high frequency) (Heffner and Heffner 1982)
      • Humans hear up to 30 kHz
      • Dogs hear up to 44 kHz
    • Best hearing at approximately 1 kHz (Heffner and Heffner 1982)
      • Lower than most mammals
  • Exceptional low-frequency hearing ability (Heffner and Heffner 1982; Langbauer 2000; Nowak 2018)
    • Superior ability to most mammals (Heffner and Heffner 1982)
      • 10–100 times better than that of humans
    • Cochlea’s curved structure may facilitate sensitivity to low frequencies


  • Highly tactile animals (Vidya and Sukumar 2005a)
  • Explore environment through touch
  • Communicate with one another through touch (e.g., show affection or aggression, reassure, during play, etc.)
  • Face and trunk have an immense number of nerve endings (Kaufmann et al. 2022; Purkart et al. 2022)
    • More than 50,000 neurons in cheeks, ears, lip, trunk, etc. (Kaufmann et al. 2022)
      • More than other land mammals, except the African elephant (Kaufmann et al. 2022)
  • Trunk tip
    • Most sensitive part of the trunk
    • Contains several distinctive sensory structures (Rasmussen and Munger 1996)
    • Dense arrangement of nerve endings (Rasmussen and Munger 1996)
    • Can pick up tiny vibrations (Rasmussen and Munger 1996)
  • May be able to detect seismic vibrations or low-frequency sounds created by other animals running, thunderstorms, and perhaps earthquakes (O’Connell-Rodwell et al. 2000; O’Connell-Rodwell et al. 2001; Garstang 2009)
    • More research needed to learn how elephants detect these signals


  • Remarkable sense of smell (Mariappa 1986; Rasmussen and Hultgren 1990; Rasmussen 1998)
    • Well-developed sensory organs (e.g., vomeronasal system) and scent glands
  • Use trunk to detect scents in the air and on the ground (e.g., Krishnan 1972)
    • Detect gaseous and liquid chemical compounds (Rasmussen and Hultgren 1990)
  • Trunk tip used to present chemical substances to vomeronasal organ openings in roof of mouth (Rasmussen and Munger 1996; Rasmussen 1998)
    • Mucus from trunk opening (nostrils) mixes with urine or other substance
    • Elephant puts trunk tip “finger” in mouth to expose substance to the vomeronasal organ
    • Millions of nerve cells then send olfactory information to the brain (Rasmussen and Hultgren 1990)
    • Important role in breeding behavior

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics


  • Total weight
    • About 15% of individual’s body weight (wet weight) (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
  • Skull
    • Extensive honeycomb-like spaces reduce skull’s weight
    • Two high “cranial domes” at front of skull (Lister and Blashford-Snell 2000)
  • Neck and backbone
    • Short neck brings head close to elephant’s center of gravity
    • Cannot turn head side to side
    • Large number of vertebrae (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
      • 32 to 37 vertebrae, excluding tail (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
      • 34 tail vertebrae (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
        • One more than in African elephants (33)
  • Ribs
    • Number varies by subspecies
      • Elephas maximus maximus and E. m. indicus
        • 19 pairs of ribs
      • Elephas maximus sumatranus
        • 20 pairs of ribs
    • African elephant
      • 21 pairs of ribs
  • Limbs
    • Movement of limbs out to the side is restricted
      • Keeps weight centered and prevents falls, which can be fatal
    • Also see Locomotion


  • Primarily move forward and backward (for grinding food) (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Little side-to-side movement


  • Structure
    • High-crown molars with rasp-like surface
      • Enamel ridges allow for grinding coarse, high fiber and silica-rich plants
    • Chewing surfaces have closed, compressed loops (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
      • Those of African elephants are diamond-shaped
  • Development
    • 24 teeth during a lifetime (6 sets of 4 molars), plus 2 tusks or tushes
      • 12 deciduous premolars
      • 12 molars
      • 2 upper incisors (tusks or tushes; some individuals without tusks)
  • Growth and replacement
    • New molars grow in from behind, pushing worn teeth forward and out
      • Do not erupt vertically, as in most mammals
    • Teeth typically replaced at 1.5 to 2 years, 6 years, 8 to 10 years, 20 to 25 years and at 50 to 60 years (if individual survives to old age)
    • Final set is usually lost between 60 and 70 years of age (Eltringham,1991, p. 40)
      • Afterwards, elephant dies of starvation (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
  • Weight
    • A single molar can weigh over 5 kg (11 lb)


  • Structure
    • Large olfactory lobes for heightened smell (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
    • Large temporal lobes suggest heightened memory capabilities
    • Enlarged areas related to facial nerves (includes trunk motor abilities)
    • Folds in brain resemble those of humans and porpoises (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)
  • Size
    • Larger than humans’ brain, relative to body size
  • Weight
    • 5.5 kg (12 lb)


  • Double apex at base of heart (two pointed lobes instead of one, which most mammals have) (Vulpian and Philipeaux 1856; Miall and Greenwood 1878; Nowak 2018)
    • Makes an elephant’s heart more circular
  • Unique shape, with paired venae cavae (Shoshani, Adler, et al. 1982 “On the dissection…”)
    • Similar to African elephants’ heart
  • Weight
    • About 19 kg (42 lb) (or about 0.5% of body weight)
    • Shoshani, Adler, et al. (1982) “On the dissection…” estimated 13 kg, when empty
  • Heart rate
    • 28 beats per minute, standing (Benedict 1936)
    • 35 beats per minute, lying down (Benedict 1936)


  • Typically breathe using diaphragm rather than expansion of rib cage
    • Lungs attached to diaphragm
  • Respiration rate
    • 4 to 12 inhalations per minute (e.g., Benedict 1936)

Other organs

  • Jacobson’s organ (Eisenberg et al. 1971; McKay 1973)
    • On roof of mouth
    • Used for detecting sex pheromones produced by other elephants
  • Testes
    • Located near kidneys inside abdomen
    • Elephant’s low body temperature allows heat-sensitive sperm to survive


  • Cheek (temporal) glands (Miall and Greenwood 1878; Fernando et al. 1963; Rasmussen and Schulte 1998; Rajaram and Krishnamurthy 2003)
    • Unique to Asian and African elephants
    • Located midway between eyes and ears
    • Present in both males and females, but much more active in males, especially during musth (once or twice a year)
    • Produce pheromones that stimulate other elephants’ behavior (i.e., attract females, deter other males to prevent fights) (Rasmussen and Greenwood 2003; Vidya and Sukumar 2005a)
    • Drain during times of excitement, such as when fighting or pursuing mates during musth
  • Feet
    • Sweat-like glands between toes (Lamps et al. 2001)
  • Tear ducts
    • Vestigial
    • Herderian glands lubricate eyes (Vulpian and Philipeaux 1856)
  • Mammary glands
    • Two glands on underside (Miall and Greenwood 1878)

Body temperature and thermoregulation

  • Under hot conditions, elephants mainly regulate their body temperature via evaporative processes, achieved through behaviors such as bathing or putting mud on skin (Wright and Luck 1984)
    • Asian elephants are dependent on water sources (Krishnan 1972; Dunkin et al. 2013)
  • Body dissipates some heat at night, despite large size (Weissenböck et al. 2012)
    • Passive heat loss occurs in tandem with other cooling behaviors (see Behavioral adaptations, below)
  • Anatomical and physiological adaptations
    • Skin wrinkles improve moisture retention from water and mud; boost evaporative cooling from the skin (Lillywhite and Stein 1987; Domínguez-Oliva et al. 2022)
      • Lose some water across their skin surface
    • Networks of small blood vessels (capillaries) in ears dissipate heat, in combination with ear flapping (Smith 1890; Wright and Luck 1984; Dunkin et al. 2013)
    • Lack sweat glands (Smith 1890; Wright and Luck 1984; Lillywhite and Stein 1987), except possibly in their feet (Lamps et al. 2001)
  • Behavioral adaptations
    • To cool off, mainly regulate their body temperature through a mix of behaviors (McKay 1973; e.g., Mole et al. 2016)
      • Seek shade
      • Rest
      • Wet their skin
      • Flap ears
      • Shift activity to nighttime hours
    • Frequently bathe with water, dirt/soil/sand, or grasses to control body temperature (Dunkin et al. 2013; Nowak 2018; Domínguez-Oliva et al. 2022)
      • Spray themselves with dust/dirt after getting out of water (Krishnan 1972)
        • Thought to protect skin from insect bites and promote group social interactions (Rees 2002)
      • In Sri Lanka, observed to use trees to rub mud over skin (McKay 1973)
      • Infants wallow in mud instead of spraying with trunk (Krishnan 1972)
    • Flap ears, which contain many blood vessels that radiate away heat (McKay 1973; Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)

Asian Elephant

Side view of Asian elephant head, neck and trunk

Close-up of an Asian elephant's head.

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

Asian vs. African Elephants

Asian Elephant (left) has smaller ears than African Elephant (right)

Asian Elephant (left) has smaller ears than an African savannah elephant (right).

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

Wrinkled Skin

Asian elephant skin

Texture of an Asian elephant's skin.

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

Elephant Legs

Front legs and feet of an Asian elephant

An Asian elephant's sturdy legs and feet support its huge body.

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

Page Citations

Alter (2004)
Fowler & Makata (2006)
Hutchinson et al. (2006)
Manoussaki el al. (2007)
Mariappa (1986)
Shosani (1992)
Shoshani & Eisenberg (1982)
Sukumar (1989)
Yokoyama et al. (2005)

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