How Does an Elephant Eat?
Agility of the Elephant’s Trunk
Humans are endowed with hands agile enough to grasp food and perform complex tasks. Elephants though rely on the agility of their trunks. The trunk functions as both their nose and their upper lip. The trunk has no bones or cartilages but instead is made of approximately 40,000 muscles and is long enough to pick grass off the ground and reach for leaves and fruits on trees.
Elephants curl their trunks to bring food to their mouths. At the tip of the trunk is a finger-like protrusion that is able to pinch and to hook, allowing elephants to pick up food the size of a peanut. The protrusion has sensitive nerves, making the trunk a sensor that sends information about the environment to the brain.
延伸小知識 Extended knowledge
大象的鼻子為什麼這麼長? Why is the trunk so long?
This is because elephants require large amounts of food on a daily basis to maintain their body’s metabolism. Therefore, the elephant boasts a huge mouth and large teeth to grind and tear their food. Due to the immense size and weight of its head, elephants require a stout, short and muscular neck as a support. Given its body height anywhere between 3 to 4 meters, it makes it quite challenging for the elephant to lower its head to feed off grass on the ground or drink water. As a result, the elephant developed a long and dexterous trunk through evolution, which allows it to grab food from the surface – just like how we use our hand. It can also be used like a straw to transfer water into its mouth for drinking.
Do Elephants Drink Through Their Trunks?
While it’s tempting to think of the trunk as a long straw, elephants can’t pass water directly to the esophagus through their trunks. Rather, elephants hold water in the trunk before transferring it to their mouths. Elephant trunks can draw up to 5 liters of water into their trunks at one time. Because of their size, elephants need 100 liters of water daily.
The trunk is a vital organ for the elephant; it helps them breathe, grasp, drink, smell, and sense the environment. It can even make trumpet-like sounds for communication. Because of its critical functions, an injury to the trunk can eventually lead to an elephant’s death.
The elephant’s trachea is connected to its esophagus. However, behind the beast’s nasal cavity and above its esophagus, there is a cartilage which functions like a valve. Whenever the elephant pumps out water from its nose, the cartilage will automatically open, allowing it to breathe regularly again.
用嘴巴喝奶 Drinking milk Through the mouth
Before mastering the skill of drinking water with the trunk, infants first begin drinking milk from their mothers. They can curl up their short trunks and suckle with their mouths.
What do Elephants Eat?
Elephants Eat from Trees
Elephants are typical herbivores. They eat grass, fruits, leaves, and small tree branches. Elephants also eat tree bark by removing it from the tree using their tusks and trunks. They need 150 kilograms of food per day.
Elephants in the zoo are also herbivores. Unlike elephants in the wild, the bulk of their diet consists of Pennisetum purpureum, along with supplements such as corn, pallet feeds, carrots, sweet potato, sugarcane, apple, banana, and papaya. To help keep elephants healthy, sugary foods like sugarcane and fruit are given in moderation, for example as a reward during training.
Elephants Are Slow Eaters
An elephant consumes 50 tons of food annually. With a diet comprising completely of materials with tough fibers such as grass, leaves, tree barks and branches, their teeth need to accommodate powerful chewing forces. As a result, high dental lamina is developed in their molars. The high dental lamina increases the tooth durability, slowing down wear and tear on the molars.
The molars grind food like a pair of washboards. The total chewing area is increased with the aid of lateral chewing actions that allow elephants to digest food more effectively.
Elephant molars eventually wear out. Without their teeth, elephants are unable to ingest food. Elephants have evolved the ability to replace their teeth five times over their lifespan. Unlike human teeth which are replaced vertically, elephant teeth are regenerated horizontally. Elephant molars grow inside the gums further back in the cheeks. When molars at the front wear out, new molars at the back push old molars forward until they fall out. Elephants grow molars continuously. Most elephants have a total of 24 sets of molars, 6 on each side in their lifespan. As an elephant matures, the size of its molars increases along with the number of lamina on each molar. The first and second molars are present at birth. Around the age of one, a third molar will develop. The third set of molars last through the elephant’s youth. Subsequently, the fourth, fifth and sixth molars appear. The sixth set of molars start to grow slowly around the age of 25; this would be the last set of molars in an elephant’s lifetime. When these wear out, the elephant will die from starvation.
延伸小知識 Extended Knowledge
象牙 Elephant Tusks
Tusks are actually teeth, the upper incisors on the upper jaw that grow continuously. Elephants use their tusks to find water in the ground, strip trees of their bark, and threaten and attack off enemies. Tusks can also serve as a place to hang a weary trunk as the elephant relaxes.
Short Sleeping Elephants
Do Elephants Sleep Standing Up or Lying Down?
Elephants need 150 kilograms of food every day, so they spend over 20 hours a day foraging. This leaves little time for sleeping. Instead, an elephant’s time is better spent feeding. Foraging and eating replenishes the elephant’s strength and maintains its bodily functions. Most elephants sleep in a standing position that allows them to quickly wake up and flee from danger. Elephants only lie down to sleep in safe environments after lengthy hikes, or after being deprived of sleep for over 3 days. Even then, they sleep only for one hour at a time.
Elephant Family Structure
The elephant’s gestation period lasts 22 months.
At birth, baby elephants weight between 70 and 110 kilograms and are 90 to 100 cm tall.
They feed on mothers’ milk until the age of 2, and then begin to eat solid food. Around the same time, calves learn to grasp foods from their mother’s mouths. Elephants stop nursing at the age of 5 or 6.
Young elephants become sexually mature at the age between 10 and 15. Cows continue to live with the herd to care for other calves. Bulls, on the other hand, either join a group of bachelors, or live alone.
Herds of are comprised of cows, juvenile elephants, and calves, and are led by a matriarch. Usually numbering 6-20 members, some herds exceed this number. The herd is a community comprised of a grandmother, mothers, aunties and big sisters. The matriarch is responsible for educating the young and passing on her experience and knowledge, such as foraging routes and dangers. Elephants in herds share a close bond. All cows share the responsibility of nursing and breastfeeding.
延伸小知識 Extended Knowledge
Male elephants often live alone. When females are in heat, males approach herds using their trunks to sniff out cows that are ready to mate. After mating, the bull leaves the herd.
What Are Elephants Saying?
The Languages of Elephant Trunks
Elephants often communicate through physical contact, with the trunk being the most important communication tool. For example, two elephants greet each other by intertwining their trunks, a mother uses her trunk to affectionately caress her calf, and young males get their trunks tangled as they wrestle.
Elephant Herd Fortress
Besides receiving signals through their feet, elephants can also use their trunks to sniff out enemies in their environment. When elephants detect a threat, they send out alarms to alert the herd. The matriarch will fan out her ears and roar to intimidate the enemy. The other cows in the herd form a circle to protect the calves.
Answering Phone Calls with a Foot
Elephants use various body parts to communicate. Mouths and trunks can make sounds, but when outside audible range, elephants can create rumbling low frequency vibrations that can be felt through the ground. Elephants can sense these signals at a great distance through the soft cushions on their feet.
延伸小知識 Extended Knowledge
Elephants make over 70 sounds. They trumpet in joy and rumble to display anger. Different combinations of frequencies and tempos are used for various messages, such as warnings or getting the attention of a companion.