For many people, an elephant is simply an elephant, no matter where they live. For these individuals, elephants largely have no distinguishable differences. However, elephants are different, depending on where they live and to which genus they belong. Asian and African elephants are the two major types of elephants in the world today, and they actually have significant differences in both appearance and habitat. This article takes a closer look at those differences and how to identify Asian and African elephants.
To begin with, Asian and African elephants can be divided into 2 distinct genuses: Loxodonta and Elephas. Elephants from the Loxodonta genus are those commonly known as African elephants, while elephants from the Elephas genus are referred to as Asian elephants. Within each genus, these elephants are further characterized by species. The African elephant is divided into 2 species: the African bush and the African forest elephant. The Asian elephant is separated into 3 species: the Sri Lankan, the Indian, and the Sumatran elephant.
Habitat Differences Between African And Asian Elephants
One of the many differences between Asian and African elephants is that they inhabit different environments on different continents.
Asian elephants, as their name suggests, live throughout Asia in grassland, deciduous forest, semi-evergreen forest, scrubland, and tropical evergreen forest habitats. Within these habitat types, Asian elephants may live anywhere from sea level to 9,800 feet above sea level.
African elephants, found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, have a slightly different habitat compared to Asian elephants. African elephants inhabit deserts, Sahelian scrubland, mopane woodlands, miombo woodlands, and dense forests.
Physical Differences Between African And Asian Elephants
Another significant difference between Asian and African elephants is their overall size, in height, weight, and length. In order from biggest to smallest goes the African bush elephant, the Asian elephant, and the African forest elephant.
Asian elephants are considered the second largest terrestrial mammal in the world. Male Asian elephants generally weigh around 4 tons and stand around 9 feet at shoulder height. Female Asian elephants are smaller than their male counterparts at around 2.7 tons in weight and 7.9 feet at shoulder height. In length, the Asian elephant measures between 18 and 21 feet, which includes the trunk. Their tails are anywhere from 3.9 to 4.9 feet long.
In African elephants, there is a size difference between the two species: bush and forest. The African bush elephant is the largest land-living mammal in the world. In this species, the males grow to between 10 and 13 feet tall and weigh between 4.69 and 6.04 tons. The female bush elephant stands with a shoulder height of 7 to 9 feet and weighs 2.16 to 3.23 tons. The African forest elephant is the third largest terrestrial mammal in the world; the male measures 8 feet at the shoulder.
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant is to look at the shape of their heads. The forehead area of an African elephant is relatively flat and full, particularly when compared to the forehead of an Asian elephant. The Asian elephant has an almost camel-like hump beginning at its forehead that moves toward the top of its head. Additionally, the African elephant displays a single dome shape, whereas the Asian elephant appears to have two domes on either side of its head. These two domes are separated by an indented line running down the middle of the head, from above the forehead area to between the eyes.
If looking at the heads isn’t a clear enough indicator, Asian and African elephants can be differentiated by ear size and shape as well. African elephants have much larger ears than Asian elephants. Interestingly, many people compare the shape of African elephant ears to the shape of the African continent - the two have a similar appearance. The reason African elephants have larger ears is to help keep them cool against the high temperatures of the bush and deserts. These large ears are filled with more capillaries (tiny veins) that help release heat. Additionally, African elephants can utilize their ears like fans. In contrast, Asian elephants live in much cooler climates and under the shade of rainforest trees, therefore their bodies did not need to evolve to form such large ears.
Yet another difference between Asian and African elephants is their trunk. Asian elephants have trunks that measure between 59 and 79 inches in length with a single, finger-like tip. They use this tip to wrap around their food and bring it to their mouths. African elephants do not have a single, finger-like tip. Instead, they have two tips at the end of their trunk. These two tips work something like two fingers, which are used to grasp grass and other plants before placing them in their mouths to eat.
Tusks are the long, white incisor-type teeth that grow out of the elephant’s upper jaw. They are used for digging in search of water, for lifting rocks, for stripping the bark off trees, and for uprooting plants. They may also be used to mark territory and to fight competing mates during mating season or potential predators. The tusks of Asian and African elephants are another distinguishing characteristic between the two, particularly among females. In the African elephant species, both males and females can grow tusks. In the Asian elephant species, however, only males can grow tusks.
This identifying feature is not the most definite way to determine the difference between elephants because not all male elephants will grow to develop tusks. Additionally, some female Asian elephants will grow small tusks, called tushes. These tushes are not as long as tusks and are not clearly visible unless the female opens her mouth.
The majority of the visible differences between Asian and African elephants can be seen by looking at their heads. Another way to tell the difference between these species, however, is by looking down at their feet. Asian and African forest elephants typically have more toenails than African bush elephants. The front feet of Asian and African forest elephants are marked by five toenails while the back feet have four toenails. African bush elephants have fewer toenails, four in the front and three in the back.
Similar Social Structure
While physically different, all elephants share a similar social structure. They are herd animals with specific social roles within their herds. All elephant herds are matriarchal, which means they are led by the oldest female. Male offspring typically leave the herd upon reaching reproductive age.