The African forest elephant is one of three recognized elephant species alive today, along with the African savannah and Asian elephants. Though part of the same family, each species has adapted distinctive traits. The obvious habitat discrepancy aside, forest elephants have many unique physical and physiological characteristics that help differentiate them from their more well-known cousins.
At first glance, the African forest elephant is notably smaller than its savannah-dwelling relatives. African elephants average about a meter shorter¹ due to a younger maturity age, typically growing until about 10 to 12 years of age. On the end of this species’ spectrum is the pygmy African elephants of the Congo Basin. Originally considered their own species, these pygmy elephants were reclassified as smaller-sized forest elephants — weighing as little as 900kg as adults!¹ Though African forest elephants are the smallest of the three recognized species, they are a force; in a natural habitat that can oftentimes be extreme, these elephants have adapted many advantageous characteristics.
The African forest elephant must face climates that climb as high as 120°F. To protect against the scorching sun, their skin is a darker shade of grey. This helps to reduce the chance of sunburn, to which they are prone. Besides more pigmented skin, African elephants also rely on cooling mechanisms. Their ears are oval-shaped and smaller than their relatives, but they function in much the same way: they can be used as a fan, as well as to pump blood through the numerous vessels found in the ears, thus allowing excess heat to dissipate. Even more effective is their wrinkled skin. Unlike their smoother relatives, forest elephants have many cracks and crevices in which water becomes trapped after bathing. The increased surface area decreases the rate of evaporation, and 75% of body heat can be lost in this way.² In the African forest, wrinkles are valuable.
When mentioning elephant physiology, it is crucial to give attention to the tusks and trunk. The tusks of the forest elephant have adapted to the needs of this forest-dwelling pachyderm. They are thinner and straighter, pointing downwards instead of curving outward like the savannah’s — this helps them to navigate the dense forests more easily.³ The tusks differ in color as well as the ivory is a pinker hue⁴; unfortunately, this is considered more valuable in the poaching industry and contributes in part to their species being threatened. In between their beautiful, massive tusks is a trunk that slopes into two little “fingers”. The trunk is covered in touch-sensing hairs that enhance the elephant’s sensitivity and tactile senses in a dense forest. The trunk, more sensitive than human fingers, acts as a fifth limb, as well as a call amplifier; for example, when African forest elephants are upset, they produce loud trumpeting noises⁵ — sounds that are picked up by ELP’s autonomous recording units. The trunk holds 100,000 individual muscles, making it extremely strong and useful, while also being capable of great care and tenderness.¹
The forest elephant holds complexity in every part of its body — from wrinkles that trap droplets of water to a trunk coated in thousands of tactile hairs. Listed in this article are only a few traits that just scratch the surface on explaining what makes the African forest elephant so special. There is much more to be learned, and Cornell’s ELP is excited to continue studying this magnificent species.
¹ "Forest Elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis).” INaturalist.org. Accessed September 6, 2018. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/357910-Loxodonta-cyclotis#Size.
² Connor, Tara. “Loxodonta Cyclotis (African Forest Elephant).” Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 6, 2018. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Loxodonta_cyclotis/.
³ "African Forest Elephant.” WWF. Accessed September 6, 2018. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/forest-elephant.
⁴ Walker, Matt. “Rumbles in the Forest.” Earth News. Accessed September 6, 2018. http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8546000/8546127.stm
⁵ “Detailed Physiology.” Forest Elephant Loxodonta Cyclotis -Detailed Physiology Notes (Literature Reports). Accessed September 6, 2018. http://wildpro.twycrosszoo.org/S/0MProboscidae/Elephantidae/Loxodonta/Loxodonta_cyclotis/10LoxCycDetPhy.htm.