Ask Smithsonian: Can Elephants Jump?

The question is why would an animal weighing up to 16,000 pounds need to jump?

Have you ever seen an elephant jump? Probably not. And with good reason.

The average elephant weighs 8,000 pounds—that’s double the weight of a 2016 Ford F150 pick-up—and, while a truck might get airborne with sufficient acceleration, the fastest an elephant can move is about 10 to 15 miles per hour. That’s not exactly a big head of steam.

“Their mass is enormous,” says Tony Barthel, curator of Elephant Trails and the Cheetah Conservation Station at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Indeed, 8,000 pounds is just the average; elephants can hit the scales at up to 12,000 to 16,000 pounds.

And that mass is perched somewhat precariously on the elephant’s legs. It’s as if four slender columns were holding up a teetering prize-winning pumpkin. “It is not a good design for leaping,” notes Barthel.

Elephants don’t exactly have a spring in their step, either.

“If you were to look at an elephant’s skeleton, you’ll see that they’re standing on their tippy toes,” says Barthel. “All the bones are pointed straight down.” That skeletal design supports the weight, but does not allow for an upwards spring from the feet, which is what would be required for jumping.

Then again, elephants don’t exactly need to jump or move too quickly. “Their protection is in their personal size and in their herd,” says Barthel.

The only predators for healthy adult elephants are humans. Lions, leopards, hyenas and crocodiles might prey upon elephant calves or very ill older adults. If an elephant feels threatened, it will trumpet an alarm to the herd, which forms a protective circle. Younger, more vulnerable elephants are encompassed by a ring of fierce adults.

And an older adult male might charge if he’s feeling threatened, or is in musth—a state of heightened aggression driven by skyrocketing testosterone levels. He’d execute his 10 to 15 mph power walk for about 30 or 40 yards, but then stop. Elephants in general don’t like to lift up two feet at once, but can be trained to do so. An elephant’s trunk is such an incredible tool that it reduces the need to move the entire body forward, or to rise up on two legs—it can bend and stretch and telescope to accomplish a lot, says Barthel.

Increasingly, elephants—squeezed out of their own habitats—have been encroaching on human settlements, including destroying crops. Some people have tried protecting areas with fences, and while elephants can’t jump a fence, they can push them over, unless they are electrified. Trenches have also failed. If they are not wide enough or deep enough, elephants simply walk across them.

Elephants are clever, and despite reams of study on the animals, “there’s more we don’t know about them than we do know,” says Barthel.

But we do know that elephants can’t jump.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.