Asian elephant characteristics, habitat, reproduction

Anthony Golden

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is a mammal belonging to the order Proboscidea. Males have fangs, while females lack these. One of the characteristics of this species is its ears. They are smaller than African elephants and have a distinctive fan shape..

It has a long, narrow face and a large head, which is supported by a relatively short neck. The skull is made up of numerous large sinuses, which reduce the weight of this bony structure. As for the forehead, it is bulbous, because there are large breasts there.

Elephas maximus male in Thailand

In relation to the extremities, they constitute a rigid pillar that support the enormous mass of the Asian elephant. Likewise, the vast majority of the cavities of the bone marrow of the legs have been replaced by spongy bones..

This contributes greatly to the great strength that the animal has in its limbs, in addition to making them much lighter, thus facilitating their movement..

The Elephas maximus inhabits fragmented areas of semi-evergreen forests and grasslands in some Asian countries. Some of these nations are Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, and Nepal.

Article index

  • 1 Evolution
    • 1.1 Moeritherium
    • 1.2 Palaeomastodon
    • 1.3 Gomphotherium
  • 2 Characteristics of the Asian elephant
    • 2.1 Size
    • 2.2 Teeth
    • 2.3 Eyes
    • 2.4 Horn
    • 2.5 Extremities
    • 2.6 Skin
    • 2.7 The senses
    • 2.8 Scrolling
    • 2.9 The toilet
    • 2.10 Must
  • 3 Taxonomy
  • 4 Habitat and distribution
    • 4.1 - Distribution
    • 4.2 - Habitat
  • 5 Conservation status
    • 5.1 - Threats
    • 5.2 - Conservation actions
  • 6 Playback
    • 6.1 Courtship and copulation
    • 6.2 Gestation and birth
    • 6.3 The breeding
  • 7 Food
    • 7.1 Feeding method
  • 8 Behavior
    • 8.1 Social
  • 9 References 


Previously, the hypothesis was used that both Asian and African elephants originated in Asia. However, the first fossils corresponding to the order Proboscidea have been found in Africa.


The oldest predecessor is the Moeritherium, that lived during the Eocene, around 35 to 50 million years ago. The fossil remains were found in Egypt. The members of this extinct genus were small in size, measuring around 70 centimeters tall. His nose was similar to that of a tapir.

According to experts, it is likely that this mammal spent much of its time in swamps and rivers. As for its teeth, its shape suggests that it fed on soft vegetation.


Another ancestor of the members of the Proboscidea order is the Palaeomastodon. It lived in Africa, in the Eocene and Lower Oligocene, 35 million years ago. Average 1 to 2 meters high and weighed almost 2 tons.

His nose was long, trunk-shaped. In both jaws, the incisors were developed and turned into fangs. In relation to its habitat, it lived in the water or on the shore of the lake or rivers.


This now extinct genus is made up of proboscidean mammals that lived at the beginning of the Miocene and the Pliocene. They inhabited the regions that currently make up Europe, North America, Asia and Africa.

Gomphotherium It was approximately three meters tall and, although its morphology was similar to today's elephants, it has some differences. On the upper and lower jaw, which was elongated, it had two fangs.

The lower tusks were parallel and had a shovel shape, while the upper ones were covered by a layer of enamel. Another difference from modern elephants is found in the skull. This was longer and lower, which is associated with a shorter trunk.

These animals were found in swamps or in areas near water sources. The tusks were used to dig and to collect aquatic plants, which were part of their diet.

Characteristics of the Asian elephant

Elephas maximus male in Sri Lanka


The body of the Asian elephant measures between 5.5 and 6.4 meters. Regarding the height, the average for the male is 2.7 meters and for the female it is 2.35 meters. In relation to weight, the adult male weighs around 5,400 kilograms, while the female has an average of 2,700 kilograms.


In the dentition of Asian elephants, there are no canine teeth. There are only premolars, molars and incisors, which have been modified into long fangs.

The cheek teeth are of variable size, the first of these being the smallest. The ridges of the molars are narrow and have a wavy outline. These teeth suffer from sequential wear.

As soon as a tooth is worn, its roots are reabsorbed, so the adjacent tooth pushes it forward and takes its place. The worn tooth is spat out by the animal.

The first molars emerge when the mammal is between 13 and 15 years old. The first replacement occurs around 28 and 30 years, which is supplanted again at 40 years. At about age 60 or 70, the Elephas maximus has lost all molars.

In relation to the fangs, they are generally present in all males, although some may have only one. As for the females, they are characterized by not having fangs. These teeth are the product of the elongation of the upper incisors, which have been modified. They are composed of ivory and constantly grow.


The eyes have round pupils and the iris is brown. This species lacks functional lacrimal glands, so there are no tears to clean and lubricate the eye. This becomes wet due to secretions produced by Harder's gland, which has an opening on the inner side of the nictitating membrane..


The tube is an adaptation of the nose and upper lip, which have undergone lengthening. This structure is highly innervated and is made up of powerful muscles..

The elephant uses it for various functions, such as lifting objects, making sounds, taking food and water to bring to its mouth, defending itself and to caress the female during courtship..


The Asian elephant has long limbs, whose front legs have five toes and the rear four. The bones that make up the fingers rest on a large fibroelastic pad, which works as a shock absorber against the impacts that occur when the animal moves.

When walking, the weight of the elephant is well distributed. Because of this, its tracks are not as deep as might be expected, considering its size and weight. The front legs leave rounded marks, while the prints on the hind legs are oval.


The skin color of the Elephas maximus it is greyish, although it generally appears brownish tones, due to the dust and mud that adheres to its body. The epidermis has many nerve endings and may be depigmented on the ears, neck, and tube..

The skin located on the back is approximately 30 millimeters thick. In this way, it fulfills the function of protecting the animal from blows and against the bites of some insects. Its many pleats increase the surface area, which contributes to heat dissipation.

Adults have little fur. Apart from the tail plume, they have hair on the chin, forehead, lips, knees, around the ear canals and around the vulva.

The senses

Despite the thickness of its skin, the sense of touch is particularly well developed in the tube, especially at its tip. In terms of vision, the Asian elephant has a somewhat limited visual angle.

Smell is one of the most important senses. This species is able to capture olfactory stimuli, using the end of its trunk. Likewise, the hearing range is between 17 Hz and 10.5 KHz. This allows the animal to detect sounds at considerable distances.


When the Elephas maximus it walks slowly, most of the time it keeps three of its legs resting on the ground, while, if the gait is faster, only two legs are on the ground. Often moves at a speed of 3 to 4 km / h.

According to studies, researchers have determined that the elephant performs different movements with its limbs. Thus, while moving, the front jog and the rear walk at a high speed. This particular way of moving implies a low energy cost for the animal.

The toilet

Generally, elephants bathe every day, sucking water with their trunks and spraying it on their bodies. Also, they usually do a mud bath, which can occur independently of or after the bath with water..

In this behavior, the elephant throws into a muddy hole. Also, it can loosen the dirt with its front legs, pick it up with its trunk, and throw it at the body. Then, usually the animal rubs its torso against the trees, trying to remove the excess mud that remains adhered to it..


The must is a behavior typical of the male, where he shows aggressiveness and restlessness. In addition, it presents leakage of urine and discharge from the temporal glands. Some specialists point out that an increase in testosterone levels occurs during this period..

As part of the behaviors of this transitory stage, the animal spends much less time resting and feeding, so it loses weight and its physical condition deteriorates..

The first must can occur when the male is around 20 years old, and then occurs annually. Regarding the duration, in young people it could be a few days, while in adults it could span several months.


-Animal Kingdom.

-Subkingdom: Bilateria.

-Phylum: Chordate.

-Subfilum: Vertebrate.

-Infrafilum: Gnathostomata.

-Superclass: Tetrapoda.

-Class: Mammal.

-Subclass: Theria.

-Infraclass: Eutheria.

-Order: Proboscidea.

-Family: Elephantidae.

-Genus: Elephas.

-Species: Elephas maximus.


-Elephas maximus indicus.

-Elephas maximus sumatranus.

-Elephas maximus maximus.

-Elephas maximus borneensis.

Habitat and distribution

- Distribution

Distribution of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Source: No machine-readable author provided. Shyamal assumed (based on copyright claims). / CC BY-SA (

Previously, the Asian elephant inhabited from western Asia to the Indian subcontinent. It also lived in Southeast Asia, including Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, and in China, up to the Yangtze-Kiang. This range covered approximately more than 9 million km2.

Many of those populations are extinct, such as those in Java, western Asia, and most of China. Currently, the Elephas maximusIt is located in fragmented populations, with a distribution area of ​​around 486,800 km2.

Thus, it is found in Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Nepal. It also lives in China, Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesia), Lao People's Democratic Republic, Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia (Malaysia), Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand.

India and Sri Lanka

Adult Asian elephant in Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka, India. Source: Jayanand Govindaraj / CC BY-SA (

In India, the species is in four areas, northeast, center, northwest and south. The northeastern region ranges from Nepal to western Assam, along the entire Himalayas. To the south, it is distributed in isolation in Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Manipur and in the Barak Valley of Assam.

Central India has separate communities in the states of Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. To the northeast, this species is found in six isolated populations, located at the foot of the Himalayas.

Relative to Sri Lanka, today Asian elephants are restricted to the lowlands in dry regions, with small populations in the Sinharaja area and in the Peak Wilderness..

Nepal and Bhutan

In Nepal, Elephas maximus It is restricted to some protected areas on the border with India: Royal Chitwan National Park, Royal Bardia National Park, Parsa Wildlife Reserve, and Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, and their surroundings.

All the populations of this species that exist in Bhutan are found on the border with India.

Bangladesh and Myanmar

In Bangladesh, the Asian elephant is found in Chittagong and New Samanbag. This species has a wide distribution in Myanmar, but it is highly fragmented. Some of the areas where it lives include the Tenasserim Hills, Pegu Yoma and in the center of the country.

Thailand and Cambodia

In relation to Thailand, the species is in the mountains located on the border with Myanmar, with several small and fragmented populations to the south. In Cambodia, the Elephas maximus lives mainly in the mountainous areas to the southwest of the nation and in the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri.

Lao People's Democratic Republic and Vietnam

In the Lao People's Democratic Republic (or simply Laos), Asian elephants are widely distributed in forested areas, both in the lowlands and in the highlands. Among the important regions where this species inhabits are Xaignaboli, Mekong, Nakai, Phou Phanang, Phou Xang He and Phou Khao Khoay.

Only a small population lives in Vietnam. In the southern and central areas of the country, they inhabit the provinces of Dak Lak, Quang Nam, Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Dong Nai.

China and Malaysia

Previously, in China, this species was widespread in the south of the country. Today, it inhabits almost exclusively in Yunnan, specifically in Simao, Xishuangbanna and Lincang. In Peninsular Malaysia, it is distributed in the states of Pahang, Johor, Perak, Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu and Negeri Sembilan.

Borneo and Sumatra

Sumatran adult Asian elephant in a zoo. Source: Midori / CC BY (

Due to the limited location in Borneo, which is reduced to the northeastern lowlands, some specialists argue that such populations are introduced. However, genetic analysis shows that Bornean elephants are genetically different.

This could imply a colonization that occurred during the Pleistocene, together with a later isolation..

In Sumatra, Indonesia, small communities are heavily threatened. However, according to studies, this island is probably home to some of the largest populations that exist outside of India..

- Habitat

Asian elephants are generalist animals and are found in grasslands, semi-evergreen forests, tropical evergreen forests, dry thorn forests, and in moist deciduous forests. Also, they inhabit grasslands and secondary shrubs.

Within these ecosystems, they are located at heights ranging from sea level to more than 3,000 meters above sea level. However, in the eastern Himalayas, during the summer they could move above 3,000 meters above sea level..

State of conservation

Asian elephant populations have decreased considerably, mainly due to habitat degradation. This situation has caused the IUCN to categorize the Elephas maximus like an endangered species.

- Threats

Loss of habitat

One of the main problems afflicting the Asian elephant is the fragmentation of the ecosystem where it lives. Man cuts down and degrades habitat, to turn land into human settlements and agricultural spaces. This affects the animal in various ways.

Thus, in the past, this species made seasonal migrations from Bhutan to the grasslands of India, in the wetter summer months. Then in winter they would return.

Currently, such movements are restricted, as a result of ecosystem loss, in the Indian region and habitat fragmentation, in the Bhutan area..

Another threat to the Elephas maximus it is the conflict with humans. The elephant, due to the reduction of its home range, is forced to venture into the plantations, in search of food. This results in man killing the animal, protecting his crops..

In addition, this species lives in regions of the world where the population density is high. Contrary to this, the animal, due to its morphological and nutritional characteristics, needs large spaces, where food and water abound..

This is why confinement to small patches in the forest or in protected areas does not solve the problem, but rather aggravates it..


Hunting is also a problem for the Asian elephant, although to a lesser extent compared to the African elephant. This is because the Asian species has the smallest tusks or in some cases does not have them..

However, its capture is mainly associated with the commercialization of its skin and meat. The selective hunting of males, because they have fangs, affects reproduction, the perpetuation of the species and genetic variation.

- Conservation actions

The Elephas maximus it is included in Appendix I of CITES. The conservation strategies are oriented towards the conservation of the elephant habitat and the need to maintain connectivity between them, guaranteeing the permanence of ecological corridors..

They also provide legal protection to the species and the monitoring of compliance and application of the sanctions contemplated in the legislation..

In addition, the monitoring of conservation interventions is imperative. This in order to make the necessary adjustments and evaluate the success or failure of the actions implemented..


Sexual maturity in the Asian elephant occurs when it is between 10 and 15 years of age. The female is polyestric, with an estrous cycle that lasts about 14 to 16 weeks, and an estrus of 3 to 7 days..

In general, there is no established season for the reproductive period, so it could occur at any time of the year. However, in Sri Lanka, the vast majority of matings occur in the dry season, where rainfall is relatively low..

In this way, the hatchlings are born in winter, at which time the vegetation is reborn, thanks to the rains..

Courtship and copulation

The mating ritual in the Elephas maximus it's very diverse. The male could touch with the tip of the trunk, the vulva of the female. Then bring the trunk to the mouth, possibly so that the Jacobson's organ picks up the scent.

Before breeding, elephants stand face to face, touch their mouths, and cross their trunks. Also, they can circle, touching their genital areas. The male usually presses his chin on the shoulders or the back of the female.

For its part, the female could move away from the male, while he follows her, touching her back with her trunk. When the female stops, the male begins copulation.

During this process, the male mounts the female from behind, stretching his forelegs forward, reaching almost to the shoulders. Then it leans on its hind legs, almost to a sitting position. In the same breeding season, males may mate with more than one female.

Gestation and birth

The gestation period lasts approximately 22 months. When the time of delivery is near, the female becomes restless. The birthing process lasts a short time, it could take about an hour between the moment the contractions begin and when the baby is expelled..

The brood

A few hours after being born, the calf is on its feet and begins to walk. Then, he begins to suck milk from the mother's nipples.

Young elephant suckling from its mother. Source: rkimpeljr / CC BY-SA (

During the first three months, the nutrition of the young depends exclusively on breast milk. From the fourth month he begins to eat herbs, thus decreasing the frequency with which he is breastfed. However, it could continue to be fed by the mother until another calf is born..


Asian elephants are herbivorous animals and have a very varied diet. Some of the plant species they consume are legumes (Fabaceae), grasses (Poaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), palms (Palmae) and mallow (Malvales).

However, they can feed on more than 100 species of plants, including sugarcane, bamboo, tree roots, fruits, flowers, grains, seeds and tree bark..

In Asian elephants there is a seasonal variation, as far as food selection is concerned. In some studies carried out in southern India, experts identified grass and reeds as the main foods during the wet season, while in the dry season, the preference is towards woody plants.

Feeding method

To access the plant species, the animal can use its trunk, which collects the long grasses and introduces them into the mouth. When it comes to short grasses, the Elephas maximus strongly kicks the ground, thus loosening the grass and its roots.

After that, he gathers a group of these plants and takes them with his trunk. As for the branches, it supports them with its front legs and with its trunk extracts the shoots and fresh leaves.

In the case that you want to eat the bark of the tree, you break a branch, using your forelimbs. Subsequently, he takes a piece with his trunk and brings it to his mouth, where the trunk rotates it between the teeth, thus separating the bark.

This species drinks water daily, using its trunk to suck up the water and then bring it to its mouth. Young under five years of age may approach the body of water directly and drink directly with their mouth.

In the event that water is scarce, the Asian elephant digs holes in the bed of the stream, to access the one that is there.


The females of this species remain in their natal herd, while the males disperse. On the other hand, the size of the household range is variable. Thus, in Sri Lanka, the male usually occupies between 10 and 17 km², while, in southern India, only three males cover 170 to 200 km².

In addition, during the wet season, a herd made up of 23 females and their young, have a range of approximately 25 km² and in the dry season they occupy around 64 km².


Asian baby elephant. Source: Martin L from Copenhagen, Denmark / CC BY (

The Asian elephant is a social animal. It communicates through vocalizations, smells, and touch. In relation to society, it is matriarchal, where family groups are made up of up to three females and their offspring. These could join temporarily with other clusters, around a lake or in an open area.

Also, they may clump together when they move from one area to another or around a particular food source. A study conducted in Sri Lanka indicates that the Elephas maximus can be grouped into lactation units, made up of mothers and suckling calves.

Likewise, they are united in juvenile care units, where the females and the older youth are.

When a group of elephants feel threatened, they usually organize themselves in a defense circle, placing the newborn calves and young at the center. After this, the matriarch of the pack goes to explore the terrain and investigate the predator that stalks them..


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