Elephants are the largest land animals in the world, with African males averaging five tons. They have evolved to this huge size to protect themselves from predators but almost everything that makes an elephant unique is a consequence of this bulk. Large mammals don’t have enough skin surface area to shed excess body heat so elephants have large flapping ears to act as radiators. A heavy head precludes a long neck so elephants have evolved a trunk, both to stretch up into branches and to be able to reach down to the ground to drink.
Most mammals stand with their leg joints half bent, which makes it easier to accelerate from a standstill. Elephants can only support their body weight by keeping the bones all in a line, like a pillar. Humans are the only other animal that does this. Elephants do not have fused ankle joints, as some people think, but it is true that they do not jump. The impact stresses would risk serious injury if they tried. This is the same reason that elephants don’t gallop. Instead, they have a curious half-jogging gait where the front legs run and the hind legs walk fast.
Elephants used to be classified as pachyderms and lumped with the rhino and hippopotamus. Scientists now place them in their own order, the proboscidea, along with the extinct mammoths. There are three species of elephant living today: the African Bush elephant, African Forest elephant and the Asian elephant. All elephant species are protected but poaching is a very serious problem and current population numbers are unknown.
Top 5 Facts:
1) No stick in the mud
Elephant feet spread out under their weight but shrink again when lifted. This lets elephants break the suction when they are walking through deep mud.
2) Bendy knees
Elephants are the only animal to have four forward-facing knees. All other four-legged animals have at least one pair of legs with knees that face backwards.
3) Thirsty work
Hanging around the savannah is thirsty work and the average elephant drinks more than 200 litres of water per day. That’s two very deep bath-fulls!
4) The daily grind
Elephants replace their teeth six times in their life, with new teeth moving forward from the back of the mouth. When the last set wears down, the elephant dies of starvation
5) Don’t try to outrun one
They may not look fast and although elephants take a long time to accelerate during a charge they can, in fact, reach 40km/h (25mph). Quite a speed for its size!
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