The African elephant, the heaviest land animal, is often considered to be represented by two distinct species: the larger, more widespread savanna (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the less common, smaller, forest elephant (L. cyclotis). Of the two, the forest elephant has smaller, rounder ears and downward pointing tusks (curved tusks, like those of the savanna elephant, could get caught in the dense forest vegetation). It's also the more threatened of the two types of elephants -- although all African elephants are endangered.
Male African elephants of both species are larger and heavier than females. The African elephant is characterized by its large head; large ears, each about four feet across and used to radiate excess body heat; long muscular trunk, which is actually an extended nose and upper lip; wide, padded feet; and tusks, which are actually elongated incisor teeth. The animal's barrel-shaped body is patchily covered with sparse hair over thick gray-brown skin; the short tail is tipped with long, black hair.
African elephants feed on grasses, leaves, fruits, and bark, and ingest nearly 500 pounds of food and 50 gallons of water per day. The animals chew using just four molars, which gradually erode and are replaced three times during their lives. After the last set wears away, when an elephant is around 65 to 70 years old, the animal will die of starvation.
Elephants live in a highly organized social structure referred to as a matriarchal herd, which is composed of up to 10 females and their young and led by the matriarch, who is usually the largest and oldest female, and directly related to all of the animals in her herd.
Sexually mature males only stay with the herd for mating, and will otherwise wander alone or in bachelor herds. Females can mate at any time during the year, and, after 22 to 24 month gestation, a single calf, weighing more than 200 pounds, is born. It will nurse until about age 5 but begins eating solid food at around 6 months old.
Elephants can make a variety of vocal sounds, including grunts, purrs, bellows, whistles, and trumpeting. They also produce unusual low frequency, or infrasonic, sounds, which are below the range of human hearing. These sounds are thought to allow the animals to communicate over long distances.
Did you know? An elephant's trunk weighs about 300 pounds, but the finger-like protrusions on the tip are dexterous enough to pick a blade of grass.