Elephants are large land mammals in two extant genera of the family Elephantidae: Elephas and Loxodonta, with the third genus Mammuthus extinct. Three species of elephant are recognized: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant and the Indian or Asian elephant; although some group the two African species into one and some researchers also postulate the existence of a fourth species in West Africa. All other species and genera of Elephantidae are extinct. Most have been extinct since the last ice age, although dwarf forms of mammoths might have survived as late as 2,000 BCE. Elephants and other Elephantidae were once classified with other thick-skinned animals in a now invalid order, Pachydermata.
Elephants are the largest living land animals on Earth today. The elephant's gestation period is 22 months, the longest of any land animal. At birth, an elephant calf typically weighs 105 kilograms (230 lb). They typically live for 50 to 70 years, but the oldest recorded elephant lived for 82 years. The largest elephant ever recorded was shot in Angola in 1955. This male weighed about 10,900 kg (24,000 lb), with a shoulder height of 3.96 metres (13.0 ft), 1 metre (3.3 ft) taller than the average male African elephant. The smallest elephants, about the size of a calf or a large pig, were a prehistoric species that lived on the island of Crete during the Pleistocene epoch.
Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures and are famed for their memory and intelligence, where their intelligence level is thought to be equal to that of dolphins and primates. Aristotle once said the elephant was "the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind." The word "elephant" has its origins in the Greek ?λ?φας, meaning "ivory" or "elephant".
Healthy adult elephants have no natural predators, although lions may take calves or weak individuals. They are, however, threatened by human intrusion and poaching.
Olifant and its variations (ex. oliphant, olyphant) are archaic spellings of elephant. Aside from elephants, the word has been used to refer to ivory, elephant tusks, musical horns made of elephant tusks, or a musical instrument resembling such horns.
It appears in Middle English as olifant or olifaunt, and was borrowed from Medieval French olifanz. The French word owes something to both Old High German olbenta "camel", and to Latin elephantus "elephant", a word of Greek origin. OHG olbenta is a word of old Germanic origin; cf. Gothic ulbandus also meaning "camel". But the form of the OHG and Gothic words suggests it is also a borrowing, perhaps indeed directly or indirectly from Greek "?λ?φας" (elephas), which in Homer only meant "ivory", but from Herodotus on the word also referred to the animal. The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek e-re-pa-to, written in Linear B syllabic script.
Elephants live in a structured social order. The social lives of male and female elephants are very different. The females spend their entire lives in tightly knit family groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. These groups are led by the eldest female, or matriarch. Adult males, on the other hand, live mostly solitary lives.
The social circle of the female elephant does not end with the small family unit. In addition to encountering the local males that live on the fringes of one or more groups, the female's life also involves interaction with other families, clans, and subpopulations. Most immediate family groups range from five to fifteen adults, as well as a number of immature males and females. When a group gets too big, a few of the elder daughters will break off and form their own small group. They remain very aware of which local herds are relatives and which are not.
The life of the adult male is very different. As he gets older, he begins to spend more time at the edge of the herd, gradually going off on his own for hours or days at a time. Eventually, days become weeks, and somewhere around the age of fourteen, the mature male, or bull, sets out from his natal group for good. While males do live primarily solitary lives, they will occasionally form loose associations with other males. These groups are called bachelor herds. The males spend much more time than the females fighting for dominance with each other. Only the most dominant males will be permitted to breed with cycling females. The less dominant ones must wait their turns. It is usually the older bulls, forty to fifty years old, that do most of the breeding.
With a mass just over 5 kg (11 lb), elephant brains are larger than those of any other land animal. A wide variety of behaviours associated with intelligence have been attributed to elephants, including those associated with grief, making music, art, altruism, allomothering, play, use of tools, compassion and self-awareness. Elephants are believed to rank equally in terms of intelligence with cetaceans and nonhuman primates. The elephant's brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity; the elephant brain exhibits a gyral pattern more complex and with more numerous convolutes, or brain folds, than that of humans, primates or carnivores, but less complex than cetaceans. However, the cortex of the elephant brain is "thicker than that of cetaceans" and is believed to have as many cortical neurons (nerve cells) and cortical synapses as that of humans, which exceeds that of cetaceans.
Elephants have well innervated trunks, and an exceptional sense of hearing and smell. The hearing receptors reside not only in ears, but also in trunks that are sensitive to vibrations, and most significantly feet, which have special receptors for low frequency sound and are exceptionally well innervated. Elephants communicate by sound over large distances of several kilometers partly through the ground, which is important for their social lives. Elephants are observed listening by putting trunks on the ground and carefully positioning their feet.
Elephants have been working animals used in various capacities by humans. Seals found in the Indus Valley suggest that the elephant was first domesticated in ancient India. However, elephants have never been truly domesticated: the male elephant in his periodic condition of musth is dangerous and difficult to control. Therefore, elephants used by humans have typically been female, war elephants being an exception; as female elephants in battle will run from a male, only males could be used in war. It is generally more economical to capture wild young elephants and tame them than to breed them in captivity (see also elephant "crushing").
The Laotians have been domesticating elephants for centuries, and about 500 domesticated elephants are still employed, the majority of which work in the Xaignabouli province. These elephants are mainly employed in the logging industry, with ecotourism emerging as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative. Elefantasia is a local INGO aiming to reconvert logging elephants into ecotourism practices, thus allowing Asian elephants the ability to supply their mahouts with income while still allowing them to breed.
Elephants are also commonly exhibited in zoos and wild animal parks. About 1200 elephants are kept in western zoos. A study shows that the lifespan of elephants in European zoos is about half as long as those living in protected areas in Africa and Asia. As of July 2010, the oldest living African elephant in captivity is Ruaha (59) at Zoo Basel .
Elephants are revered in India (and are worshipped in ceremonies such as the Aanayoottu).
War elephants were used by armies in the Indian subcontinent, the Warring States of China, and later by the Persian Empire. This use was adopted by Hellenistic armies after Alexander the Great experienced their worth against King Porus, notably in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid diadoch empires. The Carthaginian general Hannibal took elephants across the Alps when he was fighting the Romans, but brought too few elephants to be of much military use, although his horse cavalry was quite successful; he probably used a now-extinct third African subspecies, the North African forest elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate. A large elephant in full charge could cause tremendous damage to infantry, and cavalry horses would be afraid of them (see Battle of Hydaspes).
In the Southeast Asia, the powerful Khmer Empire had come to regional dominance by the 9th century AD, drawing heavily on the use of war elephants. With the collapse of Khmer power in the 15th century, the successor region powers of Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) also adopted the widespread use of war elephants. A notable example of a battle using elephants in Southeast Asia is Yuttahadhi.
Elephants have traditionally been a major part of circuses around the world, being intelligent enough to be trained in a variety of acts (see for example P.T. Barnum's Jumbo and John L. Sullivan, the famous "Boxing Elephant"). However, conditions for circus elephants are unnatural (confinement in small pens or cages, restraints on their feet, lack of companionship of other elephants). Perhaps as a result, there are occasional instances of them turning on their keepers or handlers (examples include Black Diamond and "Murderous Mary").
In popular culture
Elephants are ubiquitous in Western popular culture as emblems of the exotic because their unique appearance and size sets them apart from other animals and because, like other African animals such as the giraffe, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus, they are unfamiliar to Western audiences. Popular culture's stock references to elephants rely on this exotic uniqueness. For instance, a "white elephant" is a byword for something expensive, useless and bizarre.
As characters, elephants are relegated largely to children's literature, in which they are generally cast as models of exemplary behaviour, but account for some of this branch of literature's most iconic characters. Many stories tell of isolated young elephants returning to a close-knit community, such as The Elephant’s Child from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (1902), Dumbo (1942) or The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947). Other elephant heroes given human qualities include Laurent de Brunhoff's anthropomorphic Babar (1935), David McKee's Elmer (1989) and Dr. Seuss's Horton (1940). More than other exotic animals, elephants in fiction are surrogates for humans, with their concern for the community and each other depicted as something to aspire to.
The use of the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party (United States) began with an 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast.
The University of Alabama has a mascot of an elephant named Big Al (mascot).