Extant Afrotheria


Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Species: 3

The 3 extant species of Proboscidea are the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Elephants are the largest land mammals, the African elephant being the largest of all. It is also the second tallest living land mammal, second only to the giraffe. Elephants are generally characterised by their elongated nose that forms their trunk, powerful ivory tusks and large flapping ears. Asian elephants have much smaller ears than African elephants and, along with their higher forehead, are the easiest method of differentiating between the two types of species. Their ears are used in cooling themselves down, as well as to enhance their well developed sense of hearing. Elephants have the same range of hearing as humans, but also can hear infrasound. Although infrasound is too low for us to hear, we can sometimes feel the vibration that it causes.

The prehensile trunk of an elephant is a combination of its and its top lip. Elephants use their trunks for breathing, eating, drinking, showering, picking up objects, throwing objects, greeting and bonding with each other and for trumpeting. Elephants feed on very tall acacia trees which they reach by stretching out their trunks, wrapping the end around a branch and then pulling down; stripping off the leaves at it goes. The trunk has more than 100'000 muscles and no bone, making it extremely flexible and versatile. The end of the trunk is very different in Asian and African elephants. African elephants have two finger-like projections that are so sensitive and versatile tat they could pick up an object as small as a coin. Asian elephants only have the upper projection.

Tusks are made of a type of dentine called ivory. They are the elongated front teeth, and like humans, elephants are born with milk tusks that are replaced when the calf reaches between 6 and 12 months old. Recognisable (external) tusks are only found on African elephants and bull Asian elephants. The tusks can be used to tell bull and cow African elephants apart, as the bull has much larger tusks than the females. This is because they are used for fighting, both for dominance in a herd, and for the right to mate with females. When feeding, both male and female elephants use their tusks for digging. African elephants dig for salt on the dry plains and on the floor of caves. Just like humans are left or right handed, elephants are too. On an adult elephant, one of their tusks will be shorter and more worn than the other one as the elephant will have used it far more than the other one.

Modern elephant molar
Bristol University Museum

(Click on image for a larger picture)


African elephant
Loxodonta africana

Length: 4-5 m
Weight: 4-7 tonnes
Social unit: Group
Region: Africa
Status: Endangered


Female African elephant (Loxodonta africana)
West Midlands Safari Park, Emgland


African forest elephant
Loxodonta cyclotis

Length: 3-4 m
Weight: 0.9-3 tonnes
Social unit: Group
Region: West and Central Africa
Status: Endangered


Asian elephant
Elephas maximus

Length: Up to 3.5 m
Weight: 2-5 tonnes
Social unit: Group
Region: South and South-East Asia
Status: Endangered

Female Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)
Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, USA



Author: Emma-Louise Nicholls
Last updated: 20th November 2005
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Websites produced by students on the MSc Palaeobiology programme in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol for academic year 2005-6