Elephants are the largest living land animals and size is both the secret of their success and the reason they look the way they do. Elephants grew big to compete with the waves of antelopes and other ruminants, munching their way across the grassy plains. To eat the coarse, woody vegetation the ruminants couldn’t manage required a big digestive tract and long legs. So, they got bigger and by about two million years ago had spread all over the planet except Australasia and Antarctica.
Size brought its challenges. Overheating is a problem for large mammals: elephants’ ears evolved to stop them boiling to death. Unlike the thick skin that covers most of their bodies, the skin on their ears is paper-thin. Each ear is the size of a single bed sheet and when they flap, the airflow reduces blood temperature by up to 5°C. The skein of blood vessels acts like the grill in a car’s radiator. The pattern they make is unique to each elephant and can be used to identify them, like human fingerprints.
The other challenge is drinking, as kneeling down makes even a large animal vulnerable to attack. Elephants evolved the perfect solution, a 7ft, 28 stone, nose that contains 100 more muscles than we have in our entire bodies. Not only can a trunk suck up eight pints of water, it also functions as an arm, hand, snorkel and weapon. It is powerful enough to kill a lion with a single blow.
Despite weighing over three tons, elephants still walk on tip-toe, like most mammals. They can’t run or jump (to ‘run’ all feet must be off the ground at once) but they can walk silently, reaching a top speed of 15 mph. They also use their feet to hear, picking up the very low frequency calls (inaudible to humans) of other elephants from as far away as six miles. Males and females can’t understand each other’s calls, but the female vocabulary is much larger.
Marula fruit is the favourite food of the African elephant and the movement of the animal is strongly influenced by the status of the tree in various areas. The animals will regularly revisit the same tree, waiting for the fruit to become ripe.
The idea that elephants get drunk from eating fermented fruit is a myth. They deliberately avoid spoiled fruit, even pushing over trees to get at fresh fruit when old fallen food is available. Even if elephants did eat the fermented fruit of the marula tree, they would need to eat well over 1,000 for it to have an effect.
The marula tree is not just the favourite of the elephant; warthogs, giraffes and kudu all enjoy the fruit and bark. It is also an important source of nutrition to millions of people. Archaeological evidence shows that people were utilising the small yellow fruit about 10,000 years ago. The bark of the marula tree contains antihistamines and is used by locals to cure dysentery, diarrhoea and malaria.
Beer made from the marula tree is the favourite drink of the people of Swaziland. Drinkers say that it doesn’t give you a hangover, but in 2002 it was banned by authorities who blamed it for a huge increase in drink-driving, street brawls and absenteeism at work. Amarula, a liquor made from the fruit is a speciality of South Africa and can be served over chocolate ice cream or brandy pudding.
When you have got an elephant by the hind legs and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run.
An elephant has two ‘fingers’ at the end of its trunk which can pick up fruit the size of a marble.
An elephant's skin can be an inch thick but is so sensitive it can feel a fly landing on it.
The Carthaginian general Hannibal took elephants over the Alps to fight the Romans. This wasn't a particularly successful strategy, though; he started out with about 37, but most of them died crossing the Alps and in his first battle, leaving him with just one for the rest of the campaign.
All self-respecting generals in classical had elephants, right the way from India to northern Europe - Julius Caesar even brought one when he invaded Britain. They were powerful weapons, but could turn nasty and trample their own armies if panicked, so each driver carried a chisel and mallet so that he could kill his own elephant if necessary.
The most expensive coffee in the world is made from the dung of Thai elephants.
Elephants suck their trunks like human children suck their thumbs.
Elephants tickle each other.
Elephants are martyrs to their feet, which easily become infected, especially in captivity, if the skin of the sole becomes cracked. There are boots to cushion and protect such sore feet have to be made-to-measure for each elephant. All elephants walk on tiptoe. They are so-called digitigrades - as are horses, cattle, sheep, camels and rhinos.
Behind the tips of an elephant’s toes there is a relatively soft cushion. This is why it’s not so bad if an elephant stands on your foot, as long as it isn’t under one of the elephant's toenails. Zoo elephants have to have their toenails cut but in the wild, they are naturally worn down by use on rough ground.
Elephants can tell different human languages apart.