Elephants are truly magnificent animals-so much so, that they have a day dedicated in their honor. Sunday, August 12 is World Elephant Day - a day dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephants. What do you know about elephants? Here is a collection of facts that you may not have known.
African elephant populations are sometimes thought to differ only by the location of the animals. But, evolutionarily speaking, forest and savannah elephants are as separate genetically as Asian elephants and woolly mammoths.
The elephant’s closest living relative is the rock hyrax. It is a small furry mammal that lives in rocky landscapes across sub-Saharan Africa and along the coast of the Arabian peninsula.
African elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet, and the females of this species undergo the longest pregnancy—22 months.
Despite their size, elephants can be turned off by the smallest of critters. One study found that they avoid eating a type of acacia tree that is home to ants. Underfoot, ants can be crushed, but an elephant wants to avoid getting the ants inside its trunk, which is full of sensitive nerve endings.
Don’t feed an elephant peanuts - elephants don’t like peanuts. They don’t eat them in the wild, and zoos don’t feed them to their captive elephants.
Female elephants live in groups of about 15 animals, all related and led by a matriarch, usually the oldest in the group. She’ll decide where and when they move and rest, day to day and season to season.
Male elephants leave the matriarch groups between age 12 and 15. But they aren’t loners—they live in all-male groups. In dry times, these males will form a linear hierarchy that helps them avoid injuries that could result from competing for water.
Asian elephants don’t run. Running requires lifting all four feet at once, but elephants filmed in Thailand always kept at least two on the ground at all times.
An African elephant can detect seismic signals with sensory cells in its feet and also “hear” these deep-pitched sounds when ground vibrations travel from the animal’s front feet, up its leg and shoulder bones and into its middle ear. The elephant can determine the sound’s direction by comparing the timing of signals received by each of its front feet.
Like human toddlers, great apes, magpies and dolphins, elephants have passed the mirror test—they recognize themselves in a mirror.
Elephants can get sunburned, so they take care to protect themselves. “Elephants will throw sand on their backs and on their head. They do that to keep them from getting sunburned and to keep bugs off,” Tony Barthel, curator of the Elephant House and the Cheetah Conservation Station at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, told Smithsonian.com. To protect their young, adult elephants will douse them in sand and stand over the little ones as they sleep.
Elephants have evolved a sixth toe, which starts off as cartilage attached to the animal’s big toe but is converted to bone as the elephant ages.
Some farmers in Kenya protect their fields from elephants by lining the borders with beehives. This is doubly beneficial - not only are their crops saved, but the farmers also get additional income from the honey.