African bush elephants, the largest species of their kind, can weigh up to 11 tons and measure 10 to 13 feet in height at the shoulder. African forest elephants can reach up to 6.6 tons and almost 10 feet in height. Asian elephants are the smallest and weigh up to 5.5 tons and can grow to be almost 10 feet tall.
African Bush Elephant
Also known as the African savannah elephant, the African bush elephant is the largest living land mammal. These animals can live for up to 70 years, making them the second-longest living mammal after humans.
African bush elephants can be identified from Asian elephants by:
- Their greater size
- prominent tusks
- Large ears used to get rid of excess body heat
- Two flaplike projections at the end of the trunk
They live in a diverse range of landscapes, including grasslands, deserts, and rainforests. To survive, these creatures need to eat 350 pounds of vegetation every day.
African Forest Elephant
Until 2000, African forest and bush elephants alike were considered to be a subspecies of the African elephant. However, further genetic research revealed that African forest elephants are a distinct species in their own right. While these elephants resemble their savannah cousins at first glance, there are a few key differences. African forest elephants have:
- Tusks that point almost straight down rather than curving upward
- Rounded ears rather than pointed ones
- Four toenails on their hind feet and five on their front, much like an Asian elephant
- A diet of leaves and fruit instead of grass
- Smaller social groups
As the name suggests, African forest elephants prefer dense forests to the plains and woodlands of the African bush elephant. They are most commonly found in Eastern and Southern Africa. Accounts of water elephants or pygmy elephants are believed to be misidentified sightings of African forest elephants.
Asian elephants can be divided into three subspecies: the Indian or mainland elephant, the Sri Lankan elephant, and the Sumatran elephant. Unlike African bush and forest elephants, the genetic differences between these types of elephants is not considered significant for each of them to be considered their own species.
The key differences between Asian elephants and African elephants include:
- Their smaller size
- Smaller tusks (they may not be visible outside of the mouth in females and some males)
- Smaller, rounded ears
- One flaplike projection at the end of the trunk.
While African elephants may extend their trunks farther, Asian elephants usually have more flexible trunks. Where an African elephant is more likely to use the flaps on its trunk to pick up objects like a human using their finger and thumb to pick up a coin, an Asian Elephant is more likely to wrap its entire trunk around an object.
All elephant species are highly social―with the exception of lone African forest elephant bulls―and intelligent. Elephant herds are matriarchal, meaning the oldest female is in charge. They can communicate with each other over great distances using deep sounds lower than anything humans can hear, and they display empathy and even mourning behavior for other members of their herd. Elephants also have exceptional memories, which they use to remember the location of important resources like water.
African bush elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), meaning that they could potentially become extinct. However, populations are increasing. Asian elephants are considered to be an endangered species by the IUCN, and their population is in decline. Scientists are unsure exactly how large the African forest elephant population, although their extremely low rate of reproduction puts them at risk. All elephant species are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching.