10 Facts About Elephants You (Probably) Didn't Know

From the etymology of their name to the utility of their trunks, even elephant lovers might not know all there is to know about these fantastic beasts.

August 27, 2018

3:14 pm

1. You might think the biggest land mammal on earth is fearless, but you’d be wrong. Elephants are deathly afraid of bees and even things that sound like a swarm of bees have been known to make elephants scatter and stampede. They also hate ants. Scientists believe this fear of critters is caused by the sensitivity of the elephant’s trunk, which is packed full of nerve endings, making a bee sting or an ant bite a particularly painful ordeal.

2. Elephants are a keystone species — this means that entire ecosystems depend on them for survival, as do hundreds of plant and animal species. From the dung beetle to the baobab tree, elephants are the gardeners and the fertilizers of their home turf. Ecosystems that once had elephants and no longer do can become deserts.

3. Nine Months ain’t nothing. Elephants are pregnant for 22 months, the longest gestational period of any mammal. Fertile elephants in the wild become pregnant every four years on average, so clearly the two-year pregnancy doesn’t turn them off from baby making. And who can blame them? The results are pretty amazing:

Baby asian elephant with its mother (William Warby/Wikimedia Commons)

4. Just as humans can be righties or lefties, elephants are usually more comfortable using one tusk rather than the other. They favor it in fights and for other functional pursuits. And just like most humans, elephants tend to be righties.

5. An elephant trunk — which has about 150,000 muscles -- can function just like a snorkel and because of their specialized lung tissue, elephants can breathe underwater and swim for long distances.

6. Cartoons have lied to you. Elephants don’t like peanuts. Because of their massive size, elephants have to spend most of their day eating to get the sustenance that they need — peanuts would not fit the bill, not even in captivity.

(Wikimedia Commons)

7. If your grandmother thought it was rude to point, she wouldn’t be a fan of elephant etiquette. A study showed that African elephants can use pointing to communicate with humans — and with each other.

8. The name "elephant" is a nod to their tusks. The origin word is "elephas," which means "ivory" in Greek.

9. Elephants can't jump and there is a pretty obvious reason why: they don't have a lot of predators. According to Smithsonian Magazine, "Most jumpy animals — your kangaroos, monkeys, and frogs — do it primarily to get away from predators. Elephants keep themselves safe in other ways, relying on their huge size and protective social groups."

10. Note to poaching-passive governments: Elephants are considerably more valuable alive than dead. A poached elephant's tusks are worth about $21k USD. But an elephant that lives a full life is estimated to be worth about $1.6 million USD in tourism dollars for the economy.

African Bush Elephant in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania