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Differences between African and Asian Elephants

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. December 18, 2016
Differences between African and Asian Elephants

Surely at some point you have wondered how exactly are the African elephant and the Asian elephant different. Do you want to learn to tell them apart at first glance? Read on!

All elephants are members of the order Proboscidea, and depending on who you ask there are two or three different species. The traditional distinction is between African and Asian elephants, but nowadays scientists argue that African elephants can be split into bush elephants and forest elephants.

Want to learn more about the largest terrestrial animals in the world? Stay with us at AnimalWised and learn the differences between African and Asian elephants and much more.

Differences in habitat: Where do elephants live?

In general, elephants can consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of food per day. This means that no matter their species they need heavily vegetated areas. Elephants are herbivorous animals; they eat a variety of foods, mostly from shrubs and trees.

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) inhabits tropical forests, with areas of low vegetation and bushes. These forests can range from evergreen to decideous and dry thorn forests, and they also range scrublands and cultivated areas. Asian elephants can be found in Southeast Asia, and there are three different subspecies depending on their region; mainland Asia, Sri Lanka and Sumatra.

In Africa, elephants inhabit vast areas with different habitats. The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) lives in the dense forests and jungles of the Congo Basin. Its smaller size allows it to move with more ease, and it helps that it travels in small groups of 8 individuals at the most.

The African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), on the other hand, lives in forests and mountains, but it prefers to live in partial deserts and grasslands. They are distributed in patches throughout Central and Southern Africa.

Differences in size and anatomy: What do elephants look like?

The African bush elephant is the heaviest and largest land animal on Earth, as it can reach almost 4 meters (13 ft) tall and weigh more than 10 tonnes. The African forest elephant is quite smaller, rarely taller than 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and heavier than 5 tonnes. The Asian elephant is the smallest elephant, at about 2.5 m (8 ft) in height and 4 tonnes in weight, but it is still the largest land animal in Asia.

We can notice clear differences between the African and Asian elephants in the shape of their spine or back. While the Asian elephant has an arched back, with the highest point at the middle, both African elephants have a flatter spine with its highest point at the shoulders.

There are also noticeable differences in the elephants' head shape. The Asian elephant has a forehead marked with two humps or bulges separated by a central groove. The African elephants, however, present a more stylized forehead with a single mound or hump in the middle front.

In the picture you can see a herd of Asian elephants.

Differences between African and Asian Elephants - Differences in size and anatomy: What do elephants look like?

Differences in the ears

The big, flopping ears are one of the most characteristic traits of elephants and one of the main differences between African and Asian elephants. You can easily tell elephants apart by observing only the ears.

The ears of African elephants, no matter their species, are much larger than those of their Asian cousins. They fall on both sides of the head and can cover the animal's shoulders. Their shape is very characteristic, and it can remind us of the silhouette of the African continent. An elephant's ears are very important in regulating body temperature in an environment like the savanna.

Asian elephants, in contrast, have much smaller and rounded ears that do not fall to the shoulders. After all, they do not need ears as large as the African elephant's because they live in cooler regions.

The image shows an African elephant.

Differences between African and Asian Elephants - Differences in the ears

Differences in the trunk

The trunk is the most important organ for an elephant, as it is used in important life tasks. This part of their body is formed by the nose and upper lip, and elephants use it to breathe, smell, trumpet, drink and grasp objects. An elephant's trunk contains about 60,000 different muscles and has great mobility.

At first glance, the trunks of African and Asian elephants are very similar. However, they differ in the number of lobes or fingers. The lobes are the bumps on the trunk ends, and they are what allows the elephant to grasp objects with it. The trunk of the African elephant has two lobes at its end, one upper and one lower. The Asian elephant has a trunk with a single lobe at the upper end.

Differences between African and Asian Elephants - Differences in the trunk

Differences in the legs

Another difference between African and Asian elephants can be found in their legs; they don't have the same amount of toes!

African forest and bush elephants have 4 to 5 toes on their front legs and 3 on their hind legs. Asian elephants, on the other hand, have 5 toes on their front legs and 4 on the hind legs.

Differences in the tusks

All elephants use their tusks for tasks such as digging, moving or lifting objects such as logs or branches, and defending themselves.

All African elephants, males and females, have tusks. Males' tusks are larger. Female Asian elephants, on the other hand, do not usually have tusks. When they do, they are very small.

In the pictured you can admire the tusks of an African elephant.

Differences between African and Asian Elephants - Differences in the tusks

Differences in the tail

The tail is very similar in both types of elephants, so it is not a useful trait to distinguish them. The only notable thing is that the Asian elephant has a longer tail in proportion to its body.

What are the differences between African and Asian elephant? Round-up

As we have seen, there are several features that allow us to differentiate between an African elephant and an Asian elephant. All in all, the African elephant has a larger size and large ears reminiscent of the African continent. Its trunk has two lobs, and on its head there is only one hump. The two species of African elephant can also be differentiated by their size and habitat.

The Asian elephant is smaller, with smaller and rounder ears that do not reach the shoulders. Its trunk has one lobe and sometimes it has no tusks. Its skull has two mounds or bulges.

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