In books and television shows about elephants you will often learn that there are two different species of elephants, Asian elephants and African elephants. Now you know everything there is to know about how many elephant species there are in the world, right?
ZZZZZZZZZZT. Oops, the buzzer tells us that there is more to the story.
There actually are two types of elephants that live in Africa that live in two very different kinds of habitats, or ecosystems.
One type, the savanna elephant, lives in the savanna grasslands of East and Southern Africa. The savannas are very dry and open grasslands.
The other kind of elephant, the forest elephant, lives in the African rain forests of West and Central Africa. The tropical rain forests are very wet and enclosed with dense trees, vines, and other plants.
photo credit: Richard Champion
My, What Big Ears You Have (And Differently Shaped Too)
Both kinds of elephants have large ears. Savanna elephants have ears shaped that are somewhat pointed on the bottom. The ears of forest elephants are more round on the bottom.
There are differences in body size between the savanna elephant and the forest elephant because of the places that they live.
African savanna elephants are the largest living land mammals on Earth. Forest elephants are smaller than savanna elephants. The trees in the rain forest are very close together. The smaller size of the forest elephants may help them move more easily through the dense rain forests. Savanna elephants live in open savanna grasslands where there are not dense trees that hinder their movement.
Savanna elephants eat the bark of trees in savanna woodlands and grass. Forest elephants eat mostly plant leaves and fruits because there is much less grass growing in forests than in savannas.
Elephant Family Life In Two Worlds
Savanna elephants and forest elephants both live in family groups. Female elephants called matriarchs lead elephant families. African elephant family groups are made up of the matriarch, her sisters and adult daughters, and their calves.
When male elephants become teenagers they leave the family group. Male savanna elephants live with other male elephants at times during the year and by themselves at other times. Scientists think that male forest elephants mostly live by themselves.
Forest elephants have smaller family groups than savanna elephants. It is harder to find food in the rain forest than in the savanna grasslands. The forests cannot support elephant family groups as large as the grasslands can. The difficulty of finding food in the forests may also explain why male forest elephants live by themselves rather than with other male elephants.
A savanna elephant family group may often meet other family groups on the savanna, especially at water holes that attract all elephants. Forest elephant families do not meet up as often as savanna elephants do. They do meet other family groups though in clearings called bais where they get important minerals from the soil.
Elephants Help Shape Their Worlds
Elephants are known as "ecosystem engineers". The help shape and change the physical structure of the worlds that they live in the same way that we shape the world around us.
Forest elephants create trail systems through their dense forest homes by knocking down trees. These trail systems are used by other animals in the forest and sometimes by people who live in the forest. Forest elephants are important for the plants of the rain forest. They help the forest plant species that they eat reproduce by spreading their seeds in their droppings.
Savanna elephants help keep their savanna grassland homes open by knocking down trees and thinning out savanna woodland. Savanna elephants help the grass and tree species reproduce by spreading the seeds in their droppings just like their forest cousins do with forest plant species.
Elephant Talk, Tusks, and Trouble
Both savanna and forest elephants talk to each other using sounds that humans cannot hear. This kind of sound is called infrasound. Infrasound vocalizations can travel for many miles through the air or vibrating through the ground. In a way elephants have built in cell phones. Scientists are studying how each kind of elephant uses these sounds. It is possible that elephants use infrasound differently in savannas and forests. Scientists are not yet sure about this.
Both savanna and forest elephants have tusks. Savanna elephants have tusks that are curved. Forest elephant tusks tend to be straighter than savanna elephant tusks. Forest elephant tusks can have a yellow or may have a pinkish color. Scientists do not yet know why the forest and savanna elephants have differently shaped tusks.
Sadly both kinds of elephants are hunted illegally for their tusks, which are also called ivory. Usually when the elephant is killed only its tusks are taken. The forest elephants are also sometimes illegally killed and sold as meat in towns near the forests where they live.
Helping Save Elephant Elephants In Both Worlds
Both kinds of African elephants need the help of people who care about elephants to conserve them.
People can help both species of elephants by not buying ivory. This will reduce the demand for their tusks.
You can help conserve both worlds of the elephants in Africa by being aware that there are two kinds of African elephants, keeping informed of how they are doing, and helping other people learn about them.