fbpx Elephant - Physical Characteristics | Balipara Foundation

Elephant - Physical Characteristics

Description of physical Structure of Asian Elephant

Body Weight:

  • 2000-5500 kg. (4,500-12,000 lbs.)
  • Largest living land mammal (several whales are larger).


Body Length:

  • 5.5-6.5 m. (18-21 ft.)


Tail Length:

  • 1.2-1.5 m. (4-5 ft.)
  • Tail of Elephas m. boreensis longer than other subspecies - almost touches the ground.


Shoulder Height:

  • Female: 2.24 m. (8 ft.)
  • Male: 3.2 m. (10 ft.)
  • A bull displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History measured 4 m (13 ft.) at the shoulder
  • Shoulder height = forefoot circumference X 2.



  • All elephants have versatile proboscis or trunk, columnar legs, thick skin (pachy-dermous), and sparse patches of hair.
  • Smaller than African elephants.
  • Convex or level back vs more concave in African elephant.
  • Highest point is at head vs at shoulder in African elephant.
  • Sri Lankan subspecies is the largest.



  • Skin has several textures depending according to location on body
    • Bumpy skin on most of body
    • Smooth skin on ears, lips, eyelids, genitalia
    • Rough texture isn't found in skin of other mammals.
  • Generally smoother than the African Elephant’s
  • Thick skin - protects against insect bites and weather
  • Usually gray. May have white or pink blotches on ears, trunk, head or neck
  • Sumatran elephants lightest in color and have least depigmentation (loss of color).
  • Sri Lankan elephants darkest and have distinct depigmentation
  • Frequently bathe with water, mud or soil to control body temperature.



  • Equals about 15% body weight
  • Skull weight equals about 52 kg. (115 lbs.); extensive honeycomb-like spaces reduce skull's weight
  • Very short neck brings head close to the center of gravity. Cannot turn head side to side
  • Sumatran elephant has 20 sets of ribs, others subspecies have 19 (last 4 are floating)
  • African Elephant has 21 sets of ribs
  • Side-to-side movement of limbs from the center of the body restricted.
  • Increases stability and prevents falls, which can be fatal.
  • Feet rest on pads of shock-absorbent, elastic connective tissue, which help support weight
  • 34 tail vertebrae
  • 33 in African elephants.



  • Chewing surfaces of teeth are closed, compressed loops; those of African Elephant are diamond-shaped
  • Teeth have a high crown with rasp-like surface, which allows them to chew high fiber materials.
  • 26 teeth over lifetime: 2 upper incisors (tusks), 12 deciduous premolars, 12 molars. No canines.
  • Six sets of 4 molars molars during lifetime
  • Average replacement ages are at 1.5 to 2 years, 6 years, 8 to 10 years, 20 to 25 years and at 50 to 6 0 years.
  • The final set is usually lost between 60 and 70 years of age. (Eltringham,1991, p.40).
  • Because the teeth change in size and shape throughout life, age of an individual can be estimated.



  • Function: dig for water, salt or rocks, debark trees, serve as weapons, protection or rests for the trunk, move branches
  • Favors either left or right tusk . One tusk usually shows more wear than the other.
  • Elephant incisors develop into tushes and tusks
  • Tushes barely extend past the mouth; replaced by permanent tusks
  • Permanent tusks in place by 6 to 12 mos; grow about 17 cm (7 in. )/yr. depending on nutrition
  • Large tusks up to 1.8 m (5.9 ft); slimmer and straighter than African's
  • Longest tusk on record: 3 meters (119 in.).
  • Heaviest weighed 39 kg. (86 lbs)
  • Females are tuskless, or have tushes
  • Proportion of tuskless males varies widely (0 to 100%). They are called "makhnas."
  • Both male and female African elephants usually have tusks
  • Tusk microstructure seen in cross section ("Schreger lines") allow identification of various elephant taxa.



  • Technical term is “proboscis," meaning "before the mouth" (Greek)
  • Tool for lifting, smelling, spraying dust, grass, and water on body
  • Used to transfer water to mouth, not used like a drinking straw
  • Also used for sound production, courtship, calf assurance during nursing, behavioral signals and displays
  • More "rings" (annulations) than in African Elephant's and perhaps is more extendable
  • Formed by a fusion of the nose and upper lip
  • One prehensile “finger” at tip of trunk (mammoths had one also); African elephant has two "fingers"
  • Three types of tactile receptors at tip; most sensitive part of the trunk
  • Contains as many as 150,000 muscle units
  • Muscle masses aligned in radial, longitudinal, and oblique layers for extraordinary flex-ibility
  • Tongues of vertebrates, arms of octopus and tentacles of squid have similar flexibility
  • 70% of air inhaled is through the trunk, the rest comes through the mouth.
  • Uses trunk to transfer water to mouth, not used for drinking;can hold up to 5 liters (1.3 gal) water
  • Trunk tip's contain nerve endings with heightened sensitivity to vibrations
  • When placing trunk tip on ground, can detect vibrations of running animals.



  • Smaller than the African elephant's.
  • E.m. borneensis has larger outer ear (pinna) than other subspecies
  • Thermo regulation - positive correlation between the number of times an elephant flaps its ears and air temperature.
  • Cochlea's curved structure may facilitate sensitivity to low frequencies.
  • Can hear approximately 8Hz. – 12 kHz
  • For comparison: humans hear up to 19kHz and dogs to 44 kHz
  • Represent best sensitivity of all mammals so far tested (Langbauer 2000)
  • May be able to detect seismic vibrations from thunderstorms, animal hooves through feet.



  • Two mammary glands produce milk that is 83.82% water, 11.82% albuminoids and sugar, 3.89% fat and 0.47% ash or mineral matter.
  • Cheek (temporal) glands located midway between eyes and ears. Drain during times of excitement such as fighting, mating or in musth (once or twice a year)
  • Produce pheromones that stimulate other elephants' behavior
  • Present in both males and females; much more active in males
  • Tear ducts are vestigial. Herderian glands lubricate the eyes.



  • Eye is small in relation to body size
  • Ability to see color - probably similar to humans who are color blind
  • Total visual field is a sweep of 313° out of 360° with a 47° blind spot (compared to 357° visual field for a horse)
  • No true tear ducts
  • Good in dull light, considerably reduced in bright light.’


Sexual Dimorphism:

  • Males have large trunk bases, bulges below and in front of eyes, and swelling above the eyes. Females have narrower trunk bases and lack prominent bulge above eyes
  • Male back is more convex and curves more gradually into hindquarters; female's is straighter and "boxier" with vertical hindquarters.
  • Males considerably larger than females of same ages.


Other Physical Characteristics:

  • Folds in brain resemble that of humans and porpoises
  • Highly sensitive Jacobson's organ on roof of mouth used for detecting sex pheromones


Nature Video Highlight

EHNF 2018 Rural Futures: Lisa Mills, University of Montana on Asian Elephant Conservation
EHNF 2018 Rural Futures: Lisa Mills, University of Montana on Asian Elephant Conservation
Elephant Country Film
Elephant Country Film
EleFun Facts - Elephant's love for Water
EleFun Facts - Elephant's love for Water
Back to Top

For the latest in the Eastern Himalayas

Latest Event