If you have ever found yourself seated on the Restaurant Deck, on a private patio or at one of the game-viewing hides along the Crocodile River at Ngwenya Lodge, then you know that this is elephant country. Herds can often be seen grazing along the river bank and sometimes wander so close to our hides that you can see the colour of their eyes. So how then, could we possibly resist this tribute to elephants? Elephants are such magnificent creatures and Ngwenya visitors are often awe-struck by their incredibly humble presence; Ngwenya takes a closer look with a few unexpected and interesting facts about Loxodonta africana:

  • Anatomy

Loxodonta Africana, more commonly known as the African Bush Elephant, is recognised as the largest land animal in the world. When a bull wanders close to the Lodge, crossing the River and heading up the embankments, guests come up-close-and-personal with these sentient beings and start to notice a number of fascinating attributes. For one, elephants most distinguishing feature: their trunks, are made up of over 40 000 larger muscles, all working together to provide the elephant with a flexible, multi-purpose appendage. These muscles can then be broken down into 150 000 fascicles; tiny internal muscles which could be likened with spokes or villi. To put this into perspective, humans have approximately 750 muscles in their entire bodies.

The trunk consists of muscle groups, nerves, and connective tissue but no bone. The elephant’s skeleton starts at the tail and ends with the skull. It is most fascinating to discover, and no real surprise, that an elephant’s leg bones consist of mostly bone; the bone marrow is subsequently replaced with a spongy, denser bone material. This allows the skeletal structure of the elephant to carry the heavy weight of its muscular structure; bone marrow is lighter and would not provide the necessary support for the animal. An elephant’s red blood cell production thus occurs, not in its bone marrow as with humans, but predominantly in the pelvis.

  • Talents

An elephant’s anatomy lends itself to a range of “talents”. For example, elephants have been recorded using their trunks for a number of incredible tasks; elephants most commonly make use of the proboscides, small finger-like extensions on the tip of the trunk, to grip and snatch foliage, much like a human would use their fingers to pick objects up. The trunk is not only used for feeding, or drinking water, but has an innate ability to smell. An elephant’s olfactory system works through the millions of receptor cells found inside the trunk; the message is relayed to the olfactory cortex found in the ventral lateral brain. This ability means the elephant is even better than a bloodhound and can smell water kilometres away!

Further use of the trunk has been documented as elephants “snorkel” across rivers or bodies of water; the animal will hold its trunk above the water level and wade along the river bottom so that it may continue to breathe.

The trunk is not the only interesting talent an elephant possesses. An elephant’s tusks are incisor teeth which protrude from the skull and grow to lengths of 2 metres. Fun fact: elephants are known to favour one tusk over another, similarly to that of humans being left- or right-hand dominant. Tusks are used for a number of tasks including; stripping bark off trees as a food source for fibre and defending themselves against predators or competition

  • Epidermis

The average elephant’s total skin mass is 900 kilogrammes and can be an inch thick in certain areas. The upper dermis of an elephant is supple and not rough as it may seem; it folds and creases across the mammals body, retaining moisture and keeping the elephant cool. This wrinkling is no accident; researchers at the University of Geneva and Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics presented new findings which suggest that the creases in an elephant’s skin are purposefully created. The tiny crevices and cracks are interconnected and offer higher water retention for evaporative cooling, and can hold more mud, in an effort to dissuade insects from biting and irritating these incredible creatures, than non-wrinkly skin. It has also recently been uncovered that elephant skin is not the same density or thickness across the board, but rather thins out in certain areas or “hotspots” such as the inner leg or over their ears. These locations are used to assist in cooling their blood; elephants are believed to have a certain degree of control over pumping their blood throughout their body and will push blood through the blood vessels near the surface of these “hotspots” to cool down.

  • Extremities

One such “hotspot” is an elephant’s ear; the skin over their ears is approximately a 10th of an inch. But this isn’t the only incredible feature of their ears; elephants have extraordinary hearing, too! The average elephant’s hearing range is between 12 hertz (hz) and 12 000 hz, nearly double the range of a human. In conjunction with their hearing, elephants also make use of their feet to receive communications from elephants further away. Through various studies, scientists have found that elephants communicate at a low-frequency level, much lower than the human ear can pick up, and that their communication pathways can be received and sent to elephants in an area as large as 100 square kilometres.

A large part of this evolutionary advantage can be attributed to an elephant’s feet and trunk. An infrasonic message will be sent through a series of low rumbles and vibrations from one elephant to another. The message travels through the ground and is picked up by the receiving elephant’s feet and trunk tip. Scientists discovered that a combination of bone condition, nerve endings and sensory receptors convey the message from their feet to the ossicles in an elephant’s ear. Elephants use this mean of communication to convey messages of: stress, mating calls and as a “tracker” when herds are spread far apart while searching for food and water during a drought.

  • Dynasty

During such times as drought, when families of elephants are scattered across the landscape finding food and water sources, the Matriarch will lead her herd to locations she has previously visited as a young elephant, or calf, where she remembers there being water or ample vegetation. This is just one of the incredible ways elephants display their connection to one another, and to their lineage. Usually an elephant herd consists of the Matriarch, her daughters and their offspring. At a certain age, the males will leave the group and form a loosely knitted bachelor group of their own. Interestingly, it has been documented that these elephant herds will continue to communicate with one another and stay connected across various families. Elephants display a level of empathy and connection between one another which is rarely observed in the animal kingdom; caring for each other’s offspring, sharing special bonds transcending distance and herds, and mourning for elephant members which have passed on.

Elephants
are incredible and magnificent creatures and are “awe-inspiring” to behold. 

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