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An elephant running in the Masai Mara, Kenya (Courtesy of Flickr user brittanyhock)

14 Fun Facts About Elephants

#5: Cartoons lie—elephants don't like peanuts

1) African elephant populations are sometimes thought to differ only by the location of the animals, but, evolutionarily speaking, they are species forest and savannah elephants as separate genetically as Asian elephants and woolly mammoths.

2) The elephant’s closest living relative is the rock hyrax, a small furry mammal that lives in rocky landscapes across sub-Saharan Africa and along the coast of the Arabian peninsula.

3) African elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet, and the females of this species undergo the longest pregnancy—22 months.

4) Despite their size, elephants can be turned off by the smallest of critters. One study found that they avoid eating a type of acacia tree that is home to ants. Underfoot, ants can be crushed, but an elephant wants to avoid getting the ants inside its trunk, which is full of sensitive nerve endings.

5) Elephants don’t like peanuts. They don’t eat them in the wild, and zoos don’t feed them to their captive elephants.

6) Female elephants live in groups of about 15 animals, all related and led by a matriarch, usually the oldest in the group. She’ll decide where and when they move and rest, day to day and season to season.

7) Male elephants leave the matriarch groups between age 12 and 15. But they aren’t loners—they live in all-male groups. In dry times, these males will form a linear hierarchy that helps them avoid injuries that could result from competing for water.

8) Asian elephants don’t run. Running requires lifting all four feet at once, but elephants filmed in Thailand always kept at least two on the ground at all times.

9) An African elephant can detect seismic signals with sensory cells in its feet and also “hear” these deep-pitched sounds when ground vibrations travel from the animal’s front feet, up its leg and shoulder bones, and into its middle ear. By comparing the timing of signals received by each of its front feet, the elephant can determine the sound’s direction.

10) Like human toddlers, great apes, magpies and dolphins, elephants have passed the mirror test—they recognize themselves in a mirror.

11) Elephants can get sunburned, so they take care to protect themselves. “Elephants will throw sand on their backs and on their head. They do that to keep them from getting sunburned and to keep bugs off,” Tony Barthel, curator of the Elephant House and the Cheetah Conservation Station at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, told Smithsonian.com. To protect their young, adult elephants will douse them in sand and stand over the little ones as they sleep.

12) Stories of African elephants getting drunk from the fermented fruit of the marula tree are not true, a study concluded. The animals don’t eat the fruit off the ground where it ferments, the fresh fruit doesn’t stay in the elephant’s digestive tract long enough to ferment, and even if an elephant did eat the fermented fruit, it would take 1,400 pieces to get one drunk.

13) Elephants have evolved a sixth toe, which starts off as cartilage attached to the animal’s big toe but is converted to bone as the elephant ages.

14) Some farmers in Kenya protect their fields from elephants by lining the borders with beehives. Not only are their crops saved, but the farmers also get additional income from the honey.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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