Elephantasia…. The condition of being delirious with love for Elephants after tonight’s two-hour lecture on the world’s largest land mammals. Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research has been working with Elephants for over 25 years and played a major role in changing the way zoos take care of them today…and in the near future. We’ll be seeing the results of that on Saturday.
But first, let me introduce you to some things you might not know about these massive walking wonders and see if I can make you fall under their spell the way Colleen did for us.
Elephants have huge heads, as we can see, but their skulls are light because they are honeycombed with open sinuses. The lower jaw is very dense, however, to support their heavy trunks.
Inside that skull is the largest brain of all mammals. It weighs about eleven pounds but is only about one-third developed at birth, so it has enormous learning potential, like humans do. Most animals are born with all the brain connections they will have their entire lives, while Elephants and humans learn as they go, create memories, and act on those memories. It might not be true that an Elephant never forgets, but we know for sure they are capable of creating vast memory banks over their 60-70 year lifespan.
The heart of an Elephant weighs up to 40 pounds. Their huge kidneys make about 13 gallons of urine daily! One hundred feet of intestines only absorb 40-60% of the nutrients they eat, which is one reason they eat constantly. In the wild, Elephants forage up to 17 hours a day. Here at the Zoo our Keepers feed them hourly from dawn ‘til nearly midnight and then put them to bed with snacks.
We have already learned that Elephants are Keystone animals in their environments: If they disappear, the entire ecosystem around them is likely to collapse. One reason for this is that they bulldoze everything in sight, clearing young trees from the Savannah so that grasses can grow and grazing hoofstock will have food.
But eating branches all day long requires special chewing molars and Elephants get six sets of four over a lifetime. A single tooth can weigh about five pounds. Go lift a 5-lb barbell and imagine having a bunch of those in your head. Each oblong tooth starts in the back of the mouth and gradually moves forward until it breaks off and gets pushed out by another. This “teething” goes on for about 50 years!
Elephants also have huge ivory tusks, as we know. The tusks are extended incisor teeth made up of calcium phosphate soft enough to be carved, and that is the root of all their troubles. As useful as they are for breaking branches, fighting and digging, these tusks have led to more elephant deaths from poaching than any natural cause.
We only see 2/3 of the tusks as the rest is embedded in the skull. They can grow about 7 inches a year and weigh 130 pounds each, but if they break, the broken end doesn’t grow back and a break can lead to a jaw infection because the tusk is full of nerves and veins like our teeth.
Since Elephants don’t have chainsaws or shovels, their highly evolved trunks take the place of tools for reaching, digging, and clever manipulation of anything they want to turn into food, or tools. Their trunks are an extension of their nose and upper lip and contain over 150,000 muscle parts.
Elephants can breathe underwater, using their trunks as a snorkel, and the trunks become showers, shovels and gentle hands to care for their calves, themselves and each other.
These giants tred lightly on feet that walk like cats and dogs—on the balls of their toes—which are protected by a spongey pad and thick nails. When they step down their feet expand and when they lift them they get smaller, so this is why, as heavy as they are, they don’t get stuck in their mudbaths. Those feet, capable of holding up a 9000-pound animal, are very important and our Keepers take foot care very seriously, giving each of our Elephants a pedicure every single day.
Elephants can stand up all day long without getting tired because they can lock their leg joints so their muscles stay relaxed. Though they can’t run, hop, or gallop, they can move nearly 25 miles mph in a gait that takes three of their feet off the ground at one time.
Elephants communicate with infrasound— calls and rumbles that are so low in frequency we can only “hear” them with electronics. These calls can travel several miles and Elephants use them to warn each other of danger (like bees and lions) and let each other know where they are.
Musth. That’s Hindu for “intoxication” and a male Elephant in musth is pretty much out of his mind with a sudden testosterone surge that can last two months or more. He’ll stop eating, rip through forests yanking out trees, fight any male that crosses his path, and concentrate only on getting every female to himself. He can lose 2000 pounds from all this excess energy.
And females actually consider these crazed musth males desirable—as mates, and as protection from the other suitors who would just as soon bug them night and day. All this works out because only the most fit males go into musth and the healthiest females get them for their mates, producing calves with the best chance of survival.
Elephant herds are nearly always made up of females and their young because males are pushed out to fend for themselves when they hit puberty and start playing too roughly with younger calves. While the females are cooperatively caring for the kids, the males battle each other for dominance and the rights to mate females from other herds. What else is new?
African and Asian Elephants are all that are left of their 600 now-extinct ancestors, including the Wooly Mammoth which actually lived right here in the Oakland Hills an Ice Age or two ago. Asian Elephants are highly threatened at this time and, if we don’t watch out, we could someday lose our African Elephants too.
Ivory poachers continue to take more Elephants than any natural or accidental causes of death: Even the strongest Elephant is no match for automatic weapons, high-speed vehicles and new laws that allow much more killing.
On top of this, culling (killing) has become the solution of choice in areas where Elephants and people have different ideas about how the land is to be used.
Traditionally, Africans were nomadic people who lived harmoniously with their wild animals, but ranching and farming changed all that. Now you have a situation where 800 million people are trying to survive on land that is not that hospitable to start with. In fifty years that population will more than double and what will become of Elephants then?
This situation is similar to the near-extinction of millions of American Bison in the 1800s when barbed wire cut up their territories and gunpowder did the rest of the work. Human/animal conflicts occur everywhere, so no society can point fingers of blame. What we can do is help find alternatives before it’s too late. Projects like beehive fences are proving it doesn’t have to be an us/them proposition.
Colleen, and our Zoo’s President & CEO, Dr. Joel Parrott, have led efforts here to raise over $100,000 since 1988 for the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya. Next time you are at the Zoo, you can use your Conservation Quarter to “vote” for this research project that is helping to protect the amazing wild Elephants of Africa.
On Saturday our class is getting an incredible treat: a visit to the Elephant barns to see our groundbreaking methods of getting Elephants to participate in their own care. More about this later.