Elephant Species

Two Separate Species, African and 
Asian

There are several anatomical and behavioral differences between Asian and African elephants and also many similarities. Most noticeable is the difference in ears. Africans have huge ears shaped much like the continent of Africa. (One ear from a bull African elephant weighs more than 100 pounds.) Asians, who live in cooler forest areas, have smaller ears. Asians have rounded backs and relatively smooth skin. Africans display a sway back and very wrinkled skin.

Among Asian elephants, only males grow long incisor teeth called tusks, and not all males have them. (This is why ivory poaching has not been a tremendous problem for Asian elephants.) African elephants of both sexes generally (but not always) exhibit tusks.

An Asian elephant trunkThe trunks are also slightly different. Asian elephants have one small finger-like projection at the end of the trunk. African elephants have two "fingers." These "fingers" are very sensitive and make it possible for these huge animals to pick up very small objects. The more than 100,000 muscles in the trunk make it very flexible and strong enough to lift whole trees.

A similarity is in feeding habits. Both species are herbivores—they consume only plant material. The elephants of the African savanna eat mostly grasses, turning to leaves, twigs, bark, flowers and fruits when the grasses are not available. Asians consume a similar range of plants, including large amounts of bamboo (a fast-growing grass). Within an ecosystem, different species survive by avoiding competition for food. In any area, different animals eat specific things or feed at different times than their neighbors and therefore do not waste precious energy fighting for food. Because elephants developed after (or at the same time as) the perissodactyls (horses) and the ruminants (antelope/giraffe), they had to develop different feeding habits to survive. Elephants, therefore, developed the ability to eat a wide variety of plant materials in addition to grass. This includes the twigs and bark that horses and antelope do not generally eat. There isn't much nutrition in such woody material, but it is available year round and within the elephants' extended reach.

Though they can consume foods other animals usually don't eat, neither species of elephant has an efficient digestive system. Elephants must consume huge amounts of food each day because half of it passes through virtually undigested. This means that both species must move about constantly in search of food, and both are finding less and less space open to them.

animals living in very definite social structure. Herds are led by a matriarch, usually the oldest female, and are made up of her daughters, sisters, and their offspring. Once they reach puberty, male calves leave the mother's herd and join other young males in bachelor groups. Older males tend to be solitary.

Finally, both Asian and African elephants are highly intelligent and peaceful animals whose continued existence is increasingly threatened.

Information has recently indicated there may actually be a third species of elephants.

An article, which appeared in the journal Science on August 24, 2001, reported that DNA tests show that African Elephants should be further divided into two separate species: those that inhabit Africa’s forests and those that live in Africa’s savannas.

Forest elephants are smaller and their tusks are straighter and thinner. Their ears are rounder and their skull has a distinctive shape.

More information in a National Geographic article dated 2001.