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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Proposed Subspecies

  • "E. m. borneensis" (Borneo pygmy elephant) - subspecies status proposed
    • Originally considered a distinct subspecies
    • Later believed to be feral E. m. sumatranus or E. m. indicus
    • Recent studies indicate it is genetically distinct and has lived on Borneo for up to 30,000 years (Fernando 2003)
    • Formal recognition as a subspecies awaits a detailed morphological analysis

Common Names

  • Elephant - from Latin elephantus from Greek elephant meaning "elephant, ivory" (perhaps of Hamitic origin) (Gove 1971)
  • Gajah - Sri Lankan word for elephant, from Sanskrit gaja meaning elephant (Kahl & Santiapillai 2004)
    • Gaja-sastre ("elephant knowledge") is an ancient text on the science of elephants, written around 600-500 BCE
  • Hathi - Hindustani word for elephant, from Sanskrit hastin or hasta meaning "hand, trunk" (Gove 1971)

Scientific Name

  • Elephas - from Latin elephantus from Greek elephant-, elephas meaning "elephant, ivory" (perhaps of Hamitic origin) (Gove 1971)
  • maximus - Latin maximus meaning "greatest" (superlative of magnus "great, large") (Gove 1971)


Fossils of first elephant-like animals discovered in Moroccan rocks (Gheerbrant 1996, 2009)

  • 55 million year-old Phosphatherium weighed 15 kg (33 lbs)
  • 60 million year-old Eritherium weighed 4 to 5 kg (8.8 to 11 lbs)

Over time, there have been 10 or 11 families in the Order Proboscidea

  • Have tusks, modified upper lips and noses
  • Evolutionary trend for size increase from dog-sized to over 4 meters (13 ft)

Mastodons diverged from elephant family 24 to 28 million years ago

  • Belong to a separate family; only distantly related to modern elephants
  • Found in Europe, Greece, North America, and Central America

Molecular data: African elephants diverged from Asian elephants and mammoths 7.6 million years ago

New discovery: Earliest Asian elephants found in 6.7–5.2 million-year-old rocks in Kenya

Mammoths (Mammuthus) belong to an extinct genera of the elephant family

  • Widespread in Europe, northern Asia, North America and central Mexico, but not South America
  • DNA reveals mammoths closer relationship to Asian elephants than to African elephants
  • Woolly mammoth (M. primigenius) occupied Europe, British Isles, northern Asia, and as far south as Kansas in the United States
    • After arriving in North America, some populations returned to Asia
  • Columbian mammoths (M. columbi) spread throughout North America into Central America
  • A dwarf form of the Columbian mammoth survived on the Channel Islands of California
    • Extinct about the time of early human contact, 12,000 to 13,000 years ago
  • Extinct pygmy mammoth skeletons found on Mediterranean island of Crete and Sardinia
    • DNA and morphology shows closer relationship to Mammuthus than to Elephas

Modern genera Loxodonta and Elephasboth originated in East Africa

  • Loxodonta migrated throughout Africa
  • Elephas migrated to Asia and Eurasia
  • Extinct pygmy elephants on islands of Cyprus and Tilos islands in Mediterranean (Poulakakis et al 2006)
    • DNA more like modern Elephas
    • Not known if pygmy elephants on Sicily and Malta more closely related to mammoths or modern elephants

Elephants' closest living relatives: hyrax, sea cows, golden moles

  • Grouped into proposed new taxon, Afrotheria
    • Originated in Africa, together with aardvarks, elephant shrews, tenrecs
  • Close relationships based on molecular evidence, shared anatomy, and earth history of plate tectonics

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • The Urban Elephant - 2008, PBS
      • This Nature episode from Season 19 explores the species in the fight of lost territory while they participate with humans in a surprising array of professions
    • The Eyes of Thailand - 2013
      • Soraida Salwala, founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Elephant Hospital dedicates her life to treating the wounds of Asian elephants, including a prostheses for two Asian elephants that walked over a landmine
    • An Apology to Elephants - 2013, HBO
      • Explores paths to more humane treatment of these sensitive and intelligent animals. Since the film's release, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have announced that they will no longer feature Asian elephants in their act.
    • Bona - to be released
      • The story of a young orphaned Asian elephant whose mother died and she isn't receiving the supplements needed to survive. Three Australian's drop everything to provide the support needed for Bona to survive.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Proboscidea

Family: Elephantidae

Subtribe: Elephantina

Genus: Elephas

Species: Elephas maximus (Asian elephant)

Subspecies: E. m. maximus (Sri Lankan Asian elephant)
Subspecies: E. m. indicus (mainland Asian elephant)
Subspecies: E. m. sumatranus (Sumatran Asian elephant)

Subtribe: Loxodontina

Genus: Loxodonta

Species: Loxodonta africana

Subspecies: Loxodonta africana africana (bush or savannah elephant)
Subspecies: Loxodonta africana cyclotis (forest elephant)

Describer: Order established = Illiger (1811). Family describer = Gray (1821). Revised by Maglio (1973). The Asian Elephant (Elephas) = Linnaeus (1758).

Page Citations

Alter (2004)
Fernando et al. (2003)
Fleischer et al (2001)
Gheerbrant et al (1996, 2009)
Nikaido (2003)
Palombo and Villa (2001)
Poulakakis et al (2006)
Rohland et al (2007)
Shoshani (1992, 2006)
Thenius (1990)
Yang (1996)

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