Elephants are the largest terrestrial mammals on Earth, belonging to the Elephantidae family within Proboscidea order. This one of the most unique-looking animals does not match with any other animal having a similar physique. They are characterized by massive bodies, long flexible noses, or trunks; tusks; large fan-like floppy ears; and wide, thick legs. Elephants are highly social and intelligent animals having the biggest brain amongst animals.
Classification or Taxonomy of Elephants
Two distinct types of species of elephants were recognized by most experts: the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Their habitat is separate in different continents, and they have many unique features with distinct physical differences. There is controversy regarding the classification of the elephants into species and subspecies. Many subspecies belong to one or the other of these two main species. The expert’s opinion also differs over the number of subspecies and whether or not they constitute separate species.
African elephants are found on the Africa continent. Among the African elephants, genetic studies later recognized only two subspecies, the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the savannah or bush elephant (Loxodonta africana). However, in the 21st century, DNA studies revealed that these two subspecies need to be treated as separate species. While some wildlife bodies consider the bush and forest elephants as distinct species, others view them as subspecies of the African elephant.
Asian elephants live in South Asia and South-east Asia. There are three subspecies of Asian elephants: the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), and the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus). In some studies, the Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) is classified as a distinct sub-species. The World Wildlife Fund has determined from the DNA evidence of the Borneo pygmy elephant that genetically they are different from other Asian elephants.
8 Different Types of Elephants
1. African Elephants (Loxodonta africana)
African elephants are massive and larger of the two species left in the world. They live in sub-Saharan Africa, the rainforests of Central and West Africa and the Sahel desert in Mali. They grow between 8.2 and 13 feet (2.5 and 4 meters) tall at the shoulder and weigh 5,000 to 14,000 lbs. (2,268 to 6,350 kilograms).
The ears of the African elephant are enormous, and interestingly resemble the shape of the African continent. Large tusks can be found in both male and female African elephants. There are two “fingers” at the end of their trunks that help them to scoop things up. These elephants have fuller, more rounded heads. African elephants survive up to 70 years in the wild.
2. Savannah/Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
These are the bigger of the two types of elephants found in Africa, and more widely distributed in Africa than the other. This heaviest and the largest terrestrial animal weigh as much as 10.4 tons and grow 13 feet tall at the shoulders. They have longer trunks than other types of elephants and bigger tusks, present in both sexes. They use their extremely big ears to radiate excess heat.
Based on minor genetic and morphological differences, four subspecies of African bush elephants are recognized. They are as follows:
- Southern African bush elephant (L. a. africana): Botswana, Gabon, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Southern Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia.
- East African bush elephant or Masai elephant (L. a. knochenhaueri): Angola, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda.
- West African bush elephant or African plains elephant (L. a. oxyotis): Ethiopia, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Northern Cameroon, Senegal, Somalia.
- North African bush elephant (L. a. pharaohensis): Now, extinct was once native to Sahara.
3. Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)
These elephants reside in the forests of the Congo basin of Africa. Initially, forest elephants were regarded as the same species like the bush elephant. However, genetic studies revealed significant differences between the two. They evolved separately some 2 to 7 million years ago and classified as separate types of elephants.
The African forest elephants are smaller and darker compared to their savanna counterparts. The narrower mandible, the stronger and straighter tusks, more rounded, and smaller ears separate them from savannah species. The strong tusks that sometimes reach the ground are used to push through the dense undergrowth of their habitat.
The forest elephants have five toenails on the forefoot and four on the hindfoot, unlike the savannah species. Due to a lower birth rate, these elephants take a longer time to recover from poaching than the bush elephants.
4. Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus)
Asian elephants are a little smaller than African elephants. They live in Nepal, India, and Southeast Asia in scrub forests and rainforests. They grow between 6.6 and 9.8 feet (2 and 3 m) tall at the shoulder and weighing between 4,500 and 11,000 lbs. (2,041 and 4,990 kg).
Asian elephants have smaller, rounder ears. Typically, only male Asian elephants grow large tusks. The females and a few males grow much smaller tusks called tushes that don’t always grow outside the mouth. Asian elephants have a single “finger” at the end of their trunks.
Asian elephants have a twin-domed head that bears an indent to the middle, unlike African elephants. There are more nail-like structures on their feet than African elephants. They live up to 60 years in the wild.
5. Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)
The Sri Lankan elephant is found in Sri Lanka. Among the subspecies of the Asian elephant, these elephants are the largest and grow at a shoulder height of 2 to 3.5 m, weigh between 2,000 and 5,000 kg, and have 19 pairs of ribs. The Sri Lankan elephants are darker compared to the other two subspecies. They have distinct depigmentation patches on their skin than that of the others. There are tusks in only 7% of the male Sri Lankan elephants.
These elephants are listed as endangered as their population declined drastically over the past century. Their range is also highly restricted due to massive deforestation.
6. Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus)
It is among the three subspecies of the Asian elephant and is native to mainland Asia. They attain a shoulder height of 2 to 3.5 m, weigh between 4,000 and 5,000 kg, and also have19 pairs of ribs. The skin tone of the Indian elephant is lighter than that of the Sri Lankan elephant but darker compared to the Sumatran subspecies. Females are small in size than males and lack tusks wholly or have short tusks.
Recently the Indian elephants have also been classified as endangered by the IUCN. The factors that pose a threat to the survival of these subspecies are deforestation, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, poaching, persecution by humans, and road and rail accidents.
7. Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus)
This subspecies is native to the island of Sumatra. These elephants grow to up to shoulder height between 2 and 3.2 m and weigh between 2,000 and 4,000 kg. The skin color of these elephants is lighter than the other two subspecies, and they have 20 pairs of ribs.
They are listed as critically endangered according to IUCN. The activities of humans like deforestation, and fragmentation, habitat loss, as well as poaching, have threatened the survival of the Sumatran elephant.
8. Borneo Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis)
There is controversy regarding the origin of these elephants, and there are beliefs that these elephants could have evolved from the introduction of the captive elephants to Borneo by the Sultan of Sulu. The classification of the Borneo elephant is not yet definitive, and require further genetic and morphometric research.
The Borneo elephants are called “pygmy elephants” and have no significant difference in size than ones found in peninsular Malaysia. They are found in the northern and northeastern sections of the island of Borneo in Malaysia and Indonesia. However, as the Borneo elephants are remarkably tame and passive, it indicates that these elephants are derived from domestic stock.
Elephants require extensive land areas with food, water, and space to survive and meet their ecological needs. They need hundreds of pounds of plant matter in a single day. As they lose natural habitat, they often come into conflict with the human being in competition for resources. These animals need to be protected desperately in their natural environment, and we hope their numbers remain stable.