Colours of Wildlife: African Bush Elephant

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

African Bush Elephant

This is a watercolour painting of an African Bush Elephant, Loxodonta africana. This one is either from a photo I took myself, or from a photo a friend took, I can't remember; we were together on an excursion into the Kruger National Park, and took photographs of this bull elephant emerging into the open from dense bush, and exchanged photos afterwards. I did change the picture somewhat, giving him bigger tusks in my painting!

There are so many interesting things about elephants that I can't even attempt to cover everything in one article, so I'll just mention a few items that some of you might not know about. First, tusks! One of the main results of the ivory trade of the old days is that, today, there are very few elephants with really large tusks. In for instance the Addo Elephant National Park of South Africa, where elephants have been heavily hunted in the past, even the bull elephants have very small tusks, while the cows can be tuskless. Either the genes for large tusks have been eliminated, or somehow the elephants are able to respond to the threat of hunting by simply not growing their tusks so large. The biggest tusks of this species have measured over 3 m/10 ft in length, and 90 kg/200 lbs in weight. Interestingly, an elephant's tusks are rarely the same size and shape. The tusk on one side might be longer, thicker, straighter, or all three. Elephants typically favour the tusk on one side, like humans favour the right or the left hand. The tusk that is used more is usually shorter, because of wear. Today in areas where elephants are protected, large bulls are again starting to sport really large tusks.

Elephant tusks are its incisors or 'front teeth'. They don't have real canine teeth, but have molars, grinding teeth, in the rear of the jaw. They are very interesting in the way these grow and are used. Pretty much all other mammals have two sets of teeth: the milk teeth which emerge early in life, that are then all exchanged for the permanent teeth that last for the rest of life. In elephants the system is totally different. The tusks are preceded by a set of milk tusks that fall out and are replaced by the true tusks at about the age of one. But the 'chewing teeth' work like this: the first set of chewing teeth are the premolars, a pair in each jaw, and are in place before the calf is born. They stay in until it is two years old, at which point it’s already using them for eating. Then, a second set of premolars, emerging from behind these, grow out and move forward and push the earlier ones out. Again, just a single pair in each jaw. They last for a while until the third and final set of premolars also come up from behind. From then, true molars are formed, but also at the rear of the jaw and gradually moving forward until they eventually push out the previous set. So, at any time, an elephant is actually just using a single pair of chewing teeth in each jaw, except for a short time when the old and the new sets overlap. In total, six sets of chewing teeth are formed. The final set of molars usually comes into use when an elephant is about forty years old, and has to last for the rest of its life. This is indeed what limits an elephant's lifespan: very few of them manage to live longer than sixty years, at which point the last set of teeth are worn down to stumps and the elephant gradually dies of starvation. This is the way of nature for every wild elephant.

Just about every part of an elephant's body is highly modified, to the point where it might be difficult to work out to what they are most closely related. Elephants are relatives of hoofed mammals, and of those living, their closest relatives are probably the equally highly adapted Manatees and Dugongs. It is sometimes claimed that Hyraxes are also close relatives of theirs. While there is a relationship, it can hardly be called close. Nevertheless, elephants and hyraxes are even more distantly related to other hoofed mammals.

Elephant evolution is complex and puzzling. The known early elephant ancestors were medium–sized animals with comparatively short legs and heavy bodies, like Moeritherium and Numidotherium. They do seem to have rapidly become quite large, Barytherium by 40 million years ago having been the size of a small Indian Elephant. They also quickly diversified into numerous different groups. The enormous Deinotheres reached sizes exceeding modern elephants. They had no tusks in the upper jaw, but downcurved tusks in the lower jaw. We still don't know what they used them for. It is also not clear if they had long trunks; recent conjectures are that they might have had shorter, tapir–like snouts. Deinotheres were not true elephants and died out without descendants about a million years ago.

Other early elephants initially had four tusks: two in the upper jaw and two in the lower. Although modern elephants have all lost the lower tusks, in the past a great many elephant and mastodon species elaborated the tusks in the lower jaw. In Gomphotherium these were long, sharp and fairly straight. Stegotetrabelodon had even longer lower tusks, comparable in length and shape to its upper tusks. In a group called the Shovel–Tuskers, the lower tusks became broad and flattened. In addition the lower jaw itself became long, flat and scoop–like. Again we still don't know why this was so. Early conjectures were that the shovel–tuskers used these scoop-like jaws and tusks to scoop up big mouthfuls of aquatic plants in swamps. They are then also often portrayed as having the trunk broad and flat and overlying the scoop–jaw. But we don't know if this is accurate. The shovel–like jaw could have been used for something totally different. One hypothesis is that it was used to strip bark from trees. But in truth we still don't know.

From their origin, most probably in Africa, early elephants spread into Asia, Europe, and even North and South America. Several different groups of them lived in all these places into fairly recent times. Apart from true elephants there were the Mastodons, Gomphotheres and Stegodons. Mastodon itself lived in North America, while Cuvieronius was a Gomphothere that had made it to South America. The Stegodons were very elephant-like and lived in Asia. Mastodons, Stegodons and Gomphotheres all had representatives that survived until as recently as 10 000 years ago (very recent indeed in geological terms where one typically deals in millions of years).

Then there were the true elephants, of which Mammoths was just one group. Mammoths generally are characterized by their strongly curved or twisted tusks. Woolly Mammoths are actually quite closely related to the modern Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus   – more closely than Asian Elephants are related to the African species. Mammoths seem to have originated in Africa, at which point they were not woolly; from there they spread to Asia, Europe and America. When they encountered cold climates, they developed woolly coats. Other mammoth species include the huge Steppe Mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii and the Songhua River Mammoth, Mammuthus sungari (sometimes considered to be the same species as the Steppe Mammoth) which were as far as we know the largest species, much larger than modern elephants – standing possibly more than five metres/16.5 ft at the shoulder and reaching possibly 15 tons in bodyweight. In America, the Imperial Mammoth, Mammuthus imperator and Columbian Mammoth Mammuthus columbii also became very large, similarly tall but perhaps somewhat lighter in build. These are the ones of which bones are found in the La Brea Tar Pits. They sported the largest tusks, and probably the largest and heaviest teeth of any animal ever: one tusk had a length of 4.9 m/16.4 ft. These species lived in mild climates and probably did not have woolly coats. The Woolly Mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, was smaller, comparable to living elephants in size. We know a great deal about it from frozen carcasses found in the Arctic permafrost. There is the possibility that this species might some day be brought back from extinction through cloning. It was a close relative of Asian Elephants, and only became extinct recently, with some individuals definitely surviving as little as 3 700 years ago.

There were also pygmy mammoths. The last Woolly Mammoths, which survived on Wrangel Island, seem to have become somewhat smaller than the mainland animals. But a true dwarf species, Mammuthus exilis, evolved on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. It was only 1.4–2.1 m (4.5–7 ft) at the shoulder, with a maximum bodyweight of 910 kg/2000 lbs – one tenth the mass of the mainland Columbian Mammoth. This is a typical response of animals in a region where resources are limited.

Mammoths are strictly speaking elephants proper, though many people don't consider them as such. But 'regular' elephants also were diverse in the past. The current Asian Elephant is probably a descendant of animals that moved out of Africa five or so million years ago. The genus Elephas was quite big, and included elephants larger than any of the surviving species. Elephas recki was a huge species from Africa. The so–called Straight–tusked Elephant, Elephas antiquus (sometimes put in a separate genus Paleoloxodon) lived in Europe and exceeded 4 m/13 ft at the shoulder, with tusks of about the same length, that were only gently curved.

There were pygmy elephants as well, even smaller than the pygmy mammoths. They, too, lived on islands – descended from larger elephant species, such as the Straight–tusked, that reached the islands probably by swimming. One of the smallest, Elephas falconeri of Sicily, was only 90 cm/3 ft at the shoulder. There were numerous dwarf elephant species on the Mediterranean and Aegean Islands, as well as on islands of Indonesia.

Recently extinct subspecies of the Asian Elephant included the Chinese or Pink–tusked Elephant, and the Syrian Elephant, which occurred as far west as Turkey, and was comparable to the African Elephant in size.

Strangely enough, much less is known about the evolutionary history of the genus Loxodonta which includes the surviving African elephants. Unlike almost all other known elephant genera, this one never made it out of Africa. Three extinct species are known, and two survive: the Bush Elephant, and the Forest Elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis. That one was only recently recognized as a separate species, and is much more poorly known. There were elephants north of the Sahara in historic times, currently considered a separate subspecies of the Bush Elephant, the North African Elephant, Loxodonta africana pharaoensis. These apparently were the elephants that Hannibal used when he tried to invade the Roman Republic. This subspecies became extinct early in the modern era, exact date unknown, perhaps largely as a result of the Romans hunting them and using them in arena games and spectacles.

Currently African Bush Elephants are not in immediate danger of extinction. They are still present in large numbers in all large African parks and game reserves, and even in some places in between. The Bush Elephant lives mostly in savannah regions, but there are some that inhabit mountain and temperate forests, such as the tragic Knysna Elephants (perhaps only a single female is left), and there are also elephants inhabiting true desert in the Kaokoveld of Namibia. The desert elephants are the tallest on the continent, (though not the heaviest), sometimes exceeding 4 m (13 ft) at the shoulder.

We are still very much in the dark regarding elephants. We know much about them, but are still making new and surprising discoveries. One thing that is becoming clear is that these are amazingly intelligent and sensitive creatures. We have not yet even started inquiring into their intellectual capabilities, but there are indications that they might be comparable to chimpanzees and dolphins in intelligence. But we must beware of comparing animals' minds to humans. They are different and may be different in ways we can barely conceive. An elephant's brain is much larger than a human's, and similar in complexity. Elephants in captivity have shown surprising capabilities, including an artistic flair (try googling 'elephant painting'). Elephants are very social, and it has recently been found that they communicate over long distances using sound vibrations too low for humans to hear. They seem to really care about each other and to have very powerful emotions. Also, other than humans, they are the species that are most capable of learning – elephants continue to learn appropriate behaviours from their parents and other elephants until they are ten years old. Their societies are very complex, and include the only example in animals other than humans of death rituals. That seems to indicate that they recognize the profoundness of dying, and have something akin to respect for their dead. And the tale of elephant memories seem to be true: they have comparatively bigger memory–storage areas in their brains than humans do.

I want to emphasize something here: what we know about the elephant mind is even less than what we know about the human mind – which at present is still very, very little. So no doubt there are still many surprises in store.

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