The Wildest Things You Never Knew About Elephants

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:55:14 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Paul Lobo/Getty Images for Lumix

You'll find that elephants are some of the brightest and most majestic creatures in the entire animal kingdom. Their intelligence alone is unbelievable, but these animals offer so much more and are truly crucial to the ecosystems that they inhabit. From their incredible strength to habits within their herds, there are many things about these pachyderms that most people simply do not know. Here are some interesting facts that will completely change your perception of elephants.

A Strong Bond

If you’re lucky enough to see a herd of elephants, you'll notice that they often stay in a tight-knit circle as they travel. While adult males often venture out on their own, the mothers and children in a herd stay together. The herd is led by an elderly matriarch, with females caring for each other's offspring as well.

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Photo Courtesy: Wen Huan/Southern Weekly/VCG via Getty Images

This comes in handy when an elephant herd is faced with an outside threat. Instead of abandoning each other, they stand together. The stronger elephants will form a protective circle around the elderly, sick and young as they prepare to defend themselves.

Foot Hearing

Given the size of their ears, you might assume that elephants have an incredible sense of hearing. However, these magnificent creatures can pick up sounds in another unusual way: through their feet. Elephants are known for their trumpeting, but they also communicate in low rumbles that can travel several miles. Another elephant can pick up that rumble through its feet.

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Photo Courtesy: Wen Huan/Southern Weekly/VCG via Getty Images

That’s due to extremely sensitive nerve endings in the elephants’ feet that can pick up these "underground" messages. The ability to pick up on these vibrations can protect the herd from storms, poachers and other threats.


A Sharp Memory

The idea that elephants never really forget anything is true. Elephants have an amazing ability to remember, which is helpful in their natural habitats when it comes to finding food and water, as well as avoiding danger. Elephants often remember each other and humans, even years after they last saw them.

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Paul Lobo/Getty Images for Lumix

For example, two elephants named Jenny and Shirley were reunited in an elephant sanctuary after 23 years apart. Though they only spent time at a sanctuary for a few months, the two old friends became excited and started bellowing as they recognized each other.


Incredible Swimmers

Elephants really do love getting in the water. They enjoy cooling down and splashing around playfully just as humans do. However, it might come as a surprise that these hefty animals are also very skilled at swimming. It's a must for them at times to be able to travel to find food.

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Photo Courtesy: Bodo Marks/picture alliance via Getty Images

Because of their huge bodies, elephants have enough buoyancy to float on the surface and are able to use their strong legs to paddle forward. They also use their trunks as snorkels so they can breathe even while underwater as they cross the depths.


Elephant PTSD

Because of their sensitive spirits and sharp memories, which have been confirmed by researchers, it's no wonder that these animals can also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a great tragedy.

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Paul Lobo/Getty Images for Lumix

Researchers have discovered symptoms of PTSD in elephants that have witnessed a family member being killed by poachers or have gone through some type of abuse or isolation. This high level of trauma can cause aggression, fear and lack of socialization in elephants. These symptoms can impede the elephants’ ability to reproduce and integrate into a herd, particularly when it comes to orphaned elephants.


Crying and Sadness

Whether or not elephants have the capability to laugh or cry is still a debated issue among scientists. While some would say that elephants’ behavior can be explained in other ways, others believe that these creatures do have emotions just like humans.

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Photo Courtesy: Ryan Paul Lobo/Getty Images for Lumix

A famous example is Raju, an elephant from India that cried after he was rescued from a life of torture in 2014. The poor animal had been forced to live in painful, spiked chains and only ate scraps from tourists that passed by. When freed, the animal was seen shedding actual tears, which were likely tears of joy.


A Fear of Mice?

In various media, particularly in cartoons, giant elephants have long been depicted as being afraid of tiny mice. It's funny to think of. However, zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test this theory of elephants actually being afraid of rodents. After some extensive tests, this idea appears to be false.

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Elephants don't have the greatest vision, so they can become startled if something runs by them unexpectedly, especially a little mouse. So it appears that pachyderms are more afraid of a mouse's sudden movement than the actual mouse itself.


Ants and Peanuts

Elephants may not be afraid of rodents, but there is a specific insect they hate: ants. Although an ant would certainly die after a stomp from an elephant, the huge creatures avoid these insects. They hate ants because the insects can easily get in their trunks and bother the sensitive nerve endings inside.

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Contrary to popular belief (and cartoons), elephants are not too fond of eating peanuts either — at least, wild elephants aren’t. Wild elephants are found in Africa and Asia, and peanuts don't grow in the wild in those habitats.


Trained Firefighters

Elephants are known to use their powerful trunks to draw in and spray out water. A trunk of a typical elephant can hold about 4 liters of water, though research has shown that the trunk of a big bull can hold up to 10 liters. Well, it appears that some elephants are using their trunks to help others.

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Photo Courtesy: Dave Daballen/Save The Elephants via Twitter

Elephants in some parts of Indonesia are actually trained to help fight fires. In 2015, East Sumatra was hit with multiple fires over several months. Twenty-three trained elephants from a conservation center carried water pumps and hoses to help fight the fires.


Compassionate Creatures

Being social creatures, elephants appear to understand what other elephants are feeling. Scientists have seen that, when one elephant is unhappy, other elephants will come to it for comfort. One might even put its trunk into the other's mouth, which is a reassuring action for them.

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Photo Courtesy: Tomas Malik/Pexels

According to Frank Pope, CEO of the conservation and research group Save the Elephants, these animals are extremely empathetic. "They have deep relationships with their family members, they celebrate the birth of babies, take care of their young like we do, and nurture and reassure them into their teens," he shared with Reader's Digest.


Very Sensitive Skin

Because of the size of an elephant, many assume that its skin is pretty tough. However, that's not the case. An elephant's skin is actually really sensitive to insects and changes in the environment. Its skin is so sensitive that an elephant can even feel a fly land on its back.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants via Twitter

Elephant skin is also wrinkled in appearance. These wrinkles, interestingly enough, act as a cooling mechanism by increasing the skin's surface area. They help to trap moisture, which then takes longer to evaporate. That helps elephants stay cooler for a longer period than they would if they had smooth skin.


Dirt as Sunscreen

For the record, animals can get sunburned just like humans. Elephants are no exception, especially because their skin is so sensitive. Sunburns can cause huge blisters that take quite a while to heal.

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Photo Courtesy: Robbie Labanowski/Save The Elephants/Twitter

However, elephants do have a way to combat the sun. They simply play in the dirt. Yes, to protect their skin from the sun and insects, elephants cover themselves with dust, dirt or mud as a layer of protection. It's their own self-made sunscreen! Adults also stand over calves to cast shade and protect them from the sun as they’re sleeping.


Getting an Earful

Elephants are known for their huge ears, but they aren't just for hearing. In addition to cool baths and mud, elephants can use their ears to cool themselves down on a hot day.

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Photo Courtesy: Eldemond Williams/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Elephants can flap their ears, using them as big fans to radiate excess heat away from their bodies. The skin in an elephant's ear is also very thin but full of tiny blood vessels that release heat as the creature’s body temperature rises. Elephants also spray their ears with water, which helps cool them down even more when they flap.

Respect for Elders

As mentioned previously, an elephant herd is typically made mostly of mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters. The herd often is led by the wisest and oldest female, who is respected for her knowledge of where to go for food and ways to respond to various dangers.

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Photo Courtesy: Robbie Labanowski/Save The Elephants/Twitter

African elephants in particular listen to the advice of the matriarch of the family. In fact, they stay in a herd for life, or at least for over a decade if they need to leave — just to learn enough information to survive in the wild.

Ecosystem Keys

Elephants are a huge part of sustaining our ecosystems in the forest and savanna. Across Africa, in particular, elephants are vital in maintaining biodiversity where they live.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Elephants trample forests and dense grasslands, making room for smaller species to coexist and to create the opportunity for tree regeneration. When it comes to planted species, many plants are dependent on passing through an elephant’s digestive tract before they can germinate. About a third of tree species in central African forests rely on elephants for the distribution of seeds.


Aggression and Defense

Though they’re social and caring, elephants also have an aggressive, dangerous side. This can especially come out when they sense the need to defend themselves. Because of their huge size, these animals are capable of attacking and killing not only other animals but also humans (and have).

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

While in musth (pronounced "must"), male elephants experience increases in testosterone levels. This prepares them to compete for the attention of females but increases aggressive behaviors. They will fight other males to show dominance and are a threat to anything that gets in their way during that time.


The Importance of Trunks

The trunks of elephants are absolutely vital to their survival. Trunks function both as noses and limbs. In addition to using them to breathe while swimming or drink massive amounts of water at one time, elephants are able to easily pick up on smells around them.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

With 40,000 different muscles, an elephant's trunk is strong enough to grab huge things like branches off a tree but also agile enough to grab delicate things like blades of grass. The trunk is also used to show signs of affection towards other elephants.


Rock Hyrax Connection

Here's a little-known fact about the elephant. Its closest living relative is the rock hyrax, a small herbivore found in Africa and the Middle East. The two animals look nothing alike but share a common ancestor, Tethytheria, which is believed to have gone extinct over 50 million years ago. The animals act very differently but are still closely related.

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Photo Courtesy: Chattanooga Zoo/Twitter

Though pachyderms and hyraxes may be completely different in size, they still share a few common physical traits. They both have tusks that grow from their incisor teeth, flattened nails and several similarities in their reproductive organs.


Grieving Processes

Being the sensitive souls that they are, it makes sense that elephants mourn the loss of any of their loved ones as humans do. Though no one can know exactly what elephants are feeling, we know that they do show signs of grief when a member of their herd dies. In fact, they don't even have to have known a dead elephant to mourn it.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Elephants have been seen vocalizing for another dead elephant and trying to hug the dead animal with their trunks. Some elephants try to bury the dead body by covering it in leaves and soil.


Math Skills

Surprisingly, it appears that Asian elephants have some pretty nice skills when it comes to math. According to a recent study from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, researchers trained a 14-year-old Asian elephant named Authai to use a computer touch-screen panel.

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Photo Courtesy: Save The Asian Elephants/Twitter

Authai was shown side-by-side images of different fruits that had different quantities from zero to 10 and was trained to pick the image that had more fruit. Authai had a success rate of 66.8%, showing that Asian elephants are able to process numbers.


High Intelligence

All elephants, both Asian and African, are very smart creatures. In fact, they’re recognized for being some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. They have the largest brains of any land animal.

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Photo Courtesy: Nic NIchols/Save The Elephants/Twitter

In addition to their sharp memory and empathy, elephants can pick up on using different tools and mimic human voices. Elephants are also some of the only mammals that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror or water (dolphins, apes and humans are the others).


Human Languages

With their excellent memory and high intelligence, it’s little surprise that elephants are able to identify different human languages. This can actually help them protect themselves from danger.

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In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers played back the voices of two different ethnic groups in Africa. One was the Maasai tribe, which has been known to kill elephants. The other was the Kamba, a group that does not. After the chosen elephants heard the Maasai voices, they began to act defensively and became agitated. The study showed that elephants can recognize different languages.


Extra-long Pregnancies

Considering all the complications that come with carrying a child, nine months of pregnancy can feel like an eternity for human women. An elephant’s pregnancy is much longer than that. In fact, it's longer than any other mammal.

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Photo Courtesy: Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images

A pregnant elephant carries its baby for almost 22 months! With that extra time to develop, it's no wonder that a newborn elephant can weigh up to 260 pounds and stand about 3 feet tall. The long gestation period is also thought to increase a newborn's ability to survive on its own.


A Massive Diet

With their massive bodies, elephants need large amounts of food to sustain themselves. Elephants are herbivores, choosing to snack on things like grass, shrubs, leaves, flowers, fruits and bark. To supplement their diets, elephants also dig up the earth to find salt and minerals to eat.

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Photo Courtesy: Save The Elephants/Twitter

Though that may seem like a pretty healthy diet that would keep them lean, these creatures spend most of their days eating — 12 to 18 hours a day to be exact. In that amount of time, elephants can consume over 300 pounds of food. That's over 50 tons per year.


YouTube Stars

Another little-known fact? Elephants were the very first animals to be featured on YouTube. On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video onto a new video-sharing website by the name of YouTube.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Jawed, one of YouTube's founders, posted an 18-second scene of himself standing in front of elephants at a zoo. In the video, he speaks about how cool the elephants' long trunks were. It was a short but important clip, and, as of December 2019, the video has more than 80 million views.


Creating Watering Holes

With their extraordinary size and strength, elephants are able to shape the land around them to suit their needs. These intelligent creatures think of the future as they use their tusks, feet and trunks to dig giant holes that then fill up with water from rainfall or groundwater.

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Photo Courtesy: Wen Huan/Southern Weekly/VCG via Getty Images

These makeshift watering holes then become sources of water not only for an elephant herd but also for other animals living nearby. Elephants are also known to create footpaths, which can be indicators of their activity to researchers, zoologists and wildlife park managers.


Tusk Tools

While only male Asian elephants have tusks, all African elephants, males and females, have them. These tusks are elongated teeth with about a third of their length hidden inside the skull. Tusks can be quite huge, with the largest recorded tusk being 138 inches long and 214 pounds.

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Photo Courtesy: Robbie Labanowski/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Tusks are more than just fancy teeth for elephants. The pachyderms use them to scrape bark from trees to eat or tear down branches for tasty leaves for dinner. Elephants can also use the tusks to defend themselves when necessary.


Long-distance Calling

Elephants can communicate over long distances with other family members or other elephants in general. Of course, they can use their trunks to vocalize, but they have another way of talking to each other from miles away.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Using low-frequency vocalizations called "rumbles," which are inaudible to humans, these creatures can warn each other from far away if there is danger ahead. They can also give each other a heads-up if there’s water or food nearby. As previously discussed, elephants can also hear footsteps and these vocalizations through their feet.


Avoiding Poachers

Poachers often hunt elephants for their ivory tusks, which are worth a lot of money, or just for the sport of it. However, elephants have caught on. Using their quick wit and excellent memory, herds have learned how to avoid poachers.

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Photo Courtesy: Nina Constable/Save The Elephants/Twitter

Elephants move away from areas known for poaching, especially if they’ve suffered the loss of a matriarch at the hands of poachers. They also move more at night or spend less time foraging for food in the daytime in at-risk areas to try to steer clear of the dangerous hunters.


Keeping Quiet

Though they’re able to loudly trumpet to express their happiness or anger, elephants are typically pretty quiet animals. That doesn't mean that they don't talk at all. Elephants often prefer to use subtle forms of communication to get their points across.

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Photo Courtesy: Jane Wynyard/Save The Elephants/Twitter

These intelligent animals communicate with each other a lot through rumbles. They also communicate to potential mates or herds through touch and visual signals, which may be harder for humans to pick up on.