Why do elephants favour one tusk? Do they really 'never forget'? And how can they be one of nature's natural underwater swimmers?


Attenborough on Elephants


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Suborder: Elephantidae


The life cycle of an elephant is fairly similar to that of a human. They begin mating around the age of 20 and have a life expectancy of around 70. The oldest elephant in captivity lived to the ripe old age of 86. Their gestation period is an incredible 22 months, the longest pregnancy of any land animal. Furthermore, giving birth isn't always a happy experience, as baby elephants can weigh as much as 120kg (265lb)!

For many years there were believed to be only two remaining species of elephant, the African and the Asian. However, recent DNA testing has split the African elephant species in two, African bush and African forest. The forest elephant is much smaller than the bush elephant. Both types of African elephants are larger than their Asian counterparts though, and they have much bigger ears.

The old saying "an elephant never forgets" is quite true! Matriarchs in particular have a keen social memory and are able to remember old faces. This can be vital to the survival of the herd; when they encounter other individuals they do not recognise, family members will bunch together defensively to protect their young.

Asian elephant up close

Asian elephant up close

The Trunk and Tusks

An elephant's trunk is an extension of its upper lip and nose, as described in David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities. It also contains around 40,000 individual muscles. Both types of African elephants have two finger-like nodules at the end of their trunks, Asian elephants have only one. This means that African elephants can use their trunks to accurately pick small things up, working in the way your thumb and forefinger do. Elephants use their trunks for many things, including gathering food and social interaction. Individuals that know each other will often entwine their trunks as a sign of greeting.

The trunk is actually a union between the lip and the nose.

In the same way that humans are left or right-handed, elephants are left or right-tusked. The dominant tusk is known as the major tusk, and is usually shorter than the other tusk due to wear and tear!

An African elephant squirting zebra

An African elephant squirting zebra


Elephants are magnificent swimmers. They use all four legs to swim and are able to move swiftly, their body providing flotation while their trunk acts like a snorkel. They can even swim long distance; it is thought Asian elephants once swam from Southern India to Sri Lanka where they settled. Elephants love of swimming may be a link to their aquatic past! It is believed that elephants may have evolved from a semi-aquatic relative, which is backed up by their internal sexual organs and unique snorkel-like trunk.


Both African and Asian elephants are threatened by shrinking living space and poaching for the illegal ivory trade. Decreased habitat size has forced elephants to forage for food and has led to clashes with humans. There has been an international ban on ivory since 1989, the same year in which elephants were placed on the official endangered species list.

Quick Facts

  • Can live to 70 years old.
  • 22 month preganancy.
  • Baby elephants can weigh as much as two men.
  • 40,000 muscles in a trunk.
  • Their closest living relative is the hyrax, not hippos or rhinos!
  • Male elephants will sometimes form same-sex relationships.
  • The Hindu god Ganesh is depicted with an elephant's head.
  • White elephant is considered extremely holy in Thailand.