African Elephants: Facts & Diet

Instructor: Sarah Phenix
In this lesson, you will learn about the different species of African Elephants and how their diets play an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of the habitats they live in.

The African Elephant

As one might expect, the African elephant lives on the continent for which it's named, Africa. It's a larger species than its Asian cousin, with great plate-like ears (similar in shape to the great continent of Africa), which it uses to cool its body temperature in the heat of an African summer. Their trunk, which they use not only for smelling and breathing but also communication, trumpeting, and grasping, consists of over 100,000 muscles and tendons and, in African elephants, has two finger-like projections whereas their Asian cousins only have one.

African Elephant vs. Asian Elephant Appearance
African Elephant versus Asian Elephant

The term African elephant actually refers two either of two different species of elephant, the Savanna or Bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Each is named after the habitat it occupies and, as such, each have their own unique physical characteristics that make them particularly well suited to their different environments.

Distribution of Savanna and Forest Elephant

Distribution of Savanna and Forest Elephants in Africa
Distribution of Savanna and Forest Elephants in Africa

Savanna elephants live in Eastern and Southern parts of Africa, with their greatest populations occurring in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. Forest elephants, on the other hand, occupy countries with thickly forested areas such as Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana.

Physical Characteristics

Savanna elephants inhabit wide, open, grassland spaces, whereas Forest elephants occupy thick, forested spaces. Because of this, they each have slightly different physical features making them better suited to one habitat over the other.

Size comparison between Savanna and Forest elephants
Savanna versus Bush Elephant size

Forest elephants, inhabiting densely settled jungles and forests, are smaller in stature than Savannah elephants and darker in skin tone. The smaller size of the Forest elephant gives them greater mobility within the thicket of the forest and their darker skin helps them blend in with their shaded environment.

African Forest Elephant
African Forest Elephant

Savannah elephants, not being restrained by dense plant growth, are the largest living land animal, weighing up to 6350 kg (14,000lbs) and reaching heights of 3.9 meters (13 ft) tall. Their tusks, which in both species are actually modified upper incisor teeth, are also both longer and wider spread than their forest brethren's.

African Savannah Elephant
African Savanna Elephant

Keystone Species

Savanna elephants are like giant, living, breathing pruning sheers, using their great tusks to dig up and consume about 300lbs of roots, grasses, and bark a day. Why is this a good thing? Well, they are what we call a keystone species, in that they play an immensely important role in maintaining the boundaries and the biological diversity of their environment. By feeding on roots and trees, Savanna elephants reduce the tree density of the grasslands and open up ground space for other plants that couldn't survive in the shade of the forests. In turn, they maintain the diversity of the animal species that depend on these plants for survival. By keeping the forest species at bay, Savanna elephants preserve the boundaries, and the balance, of the forests and grasslands for the organisms that live there.

Forest elephants, like Savanna elephants, are also a keystone species and are considered megagardeners, in that they consume more seeds, from the greatest diversity of plants, and then disperse them over the greatest range of territory than any other species. There are even some species of rain forest trees that actually need to be consumed by the elephant and passed through their gut before their seeds can germinate and grow. What's more, as Forest elephants move, feed, and trample through the underbrush, they help thin the thick undergrowth, which provides the seeds in their feces a place to grow and thrive. That's some important poop!

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