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7 Memorable facts about elephants

There are few creatures more majestic than the elephant. The African savanna elephant, also known as the African bush elephant, is the largest living land mammal in the world, weighing between 4 and 7 tons eachand measuring up to 13 feet high. The other two species aren’t exactly tiny, either; African forest elephants and Asian elephants tend to be just a ton or so smaller.

Despite their mighty size, elephants are at risk — decades of poaching and ivory trading have taken a toll on their populations. But plenty of people have fallen in love with these highly social creatures and are working to save them.

Why are some elephants evolving at lightning speed? What itty-bitty creature absolutely terrifies them? Here are seven interesting facts about elephants you’ll never forget.

Their pregnancies last nearly 2 years

Human pregnancies, which last about 40 weeks, can seem like they last forever, but that’s nothing compared to elephant pregnancies. An African elephant has a single calf every four to five years after a gestation period of 22 months. Asian elephants have around one calf every three to eight years, and their pregnancies can be just as long. It’s a good thing the calves take so much time to develop, though — it gets them ready to keep up with the herd immediately after birth.

Elephants have the longest gestation period of any mammal, although some other kinds of animals have longer pregnancies; the frilled shark, which is found off the coasts of Chile and South Africa, has a gestation period of about 42 months.

They communicate with inaudible rumbles

Trumpeting isn’t the only sound that elephants make. Elephants have conversations with one another as low as 10 hertz — and human beings can’t hear anything below 20 hertz or so. While humans can’t hear these conversations, they’re low enough that we can feel them the way we can feel speakers with the bass turned way up. Scientists observing elephants have built a kind of elephant-to-human dictionary, pinpointing specific rumbles for greeting, looking for a mate, and searching for a child. The low frequency means that the conversations can travel greater distances (as far as 6 miles) through forests, which tend to dampen higher frequencies.

They live in matriarchal societies

After elephants reach maturity, males set off on their own, but females stay close to the family. Savanna elephants have an especially robust social structure: The eldest female is in charge of a family group of about six to 12, which can include her offspring, her grandchildren, her sisters, and her sisters’ descendants. These elephant mothers, grandmothers, and aunts band together to raise their young, search for food, and defend the herd. Some elephants will even nurse other elephants’ young, like a wet nurse would. If an elephant family gets too big, a cousin might split off from the herd, but the new families keep in touch and continue to share resources.

Male elephants, meanwhile, kind of do their own thing — but that doesn’t mean they’re lonely. Researchers have observed male elephants having close friendships, and even mentoring younger elephants and forming their own hierarchical groups. Sometimes older elephants travel alone, but they’re still valuable resources for less-experienced males.

Fewer elephants have tusks than a few decades ago

Elephants are a frequent target for poachers because of the ivory that makes up their tusks, and it’s been devastating to the population. In what’s now Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, the elephant population dropped 90% between 1977 and 1992. All that poaching had an interesting side effect: Fewer elephants were born with tusks.

All male African elephants have tusks, but it can go either way with female elephants, depending on their genetics. Before 1977, more than 80% of female elephants had tusks. After 1992, only about half of them did. Because so many elephants were killed for their tusks, tuskless female elephants were more likely to survive. Those surviving elephants had children, and about half of their daughters were tuskless, too. Around two-thirds of their children were also female. In other words, the poaching pressures have encouraged the birth of elephants without tusks. The tuskless trend is noticeable in other high-poaching areas, too.

Tusks never stop growing

Elephants that grow tusks get them when they’re around 2 years old, and they never stop growing. They can live to about 60 years old in the wild, so their tusks can get really, really long. Eventually, they reach or nearly reach the ground — elephants with tusks this long are called “tuskers,” or, once tusks get to be around 100 pounds each, “super tuskers.” These elephants are typically male, but not exclusively; one matriarch elephant with spectacular tusks believed to be 60 to 65 years old died in 2022.

Elephants can be right- or left-tusked

Just like humans can be right-handed or left-handed, elephants can have a dominant tusk. Researchers can tell pretty easily by sight: The one that’s more worn down is the one they’re using most often. (Elephants use their tusks to dig, lift objects, gather food, fight, and more.) With older elephants, the preference can be really obvious since they’ve spent more time wearing one down as the other kept growing. In 2017, researchers surveyed nearly 700 elephant tusks and found that there are more righties than lefties, but

not by much.

They are terrified of bees

Elephants are massive and have pretty thick skin, about an inch deep. You’d think an insect smaller than a quarter, even one with a stinger, would be no big deal — but you’d be wrong. Elephants are so scared of bees that farmers use them as a natural, humane elephant deterrent. By hanging a beehive every 10 yards or so, researchers have been able to deter 80% of elephants.

African honeybees are small, but aggressive, and can sting areas that aren’t protected by thick elephant skin, like eyes and mouths. When bees start swarming, African elephants will start flapping their ears, kicking up dust, and yelling. Asian elephants react less dramatically, but they still get visibly nervous; they shrink away from bees, comfort one another, and sometimes slap their trunks on the ground.

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