Posts Tagged With: pachyderm

 
 

Nature’s Genius – Elephant Feet

My trunk as a trombone

Check out my trunk!

I didn’t see an elephant for the first week and a half I was in the bush, which seems ludicrous given their immense size and the fact that I was out every single day, driving around game reserves looking for them. But elephants are surprisingly good at disappearing into the surrounding flora. And their dull gray colouring makes them often indistinguishable in a cluster of trees and bushes. If they don’t want you to see them, you won’t see them.

Despite their size, they can be remarkably light on their feet. The term ‘lumbering elephant’? Yeah, it’s a misnomer. In my experience, elephants move neither clumsily nor heavily. In fact, they move astonishingly quickly and lightly (almost bouncing as they go), even though they look like they are in slow motion much of the time. I guess it’s all relative – I mean, a single elephant stride is probably equal to about 15 of mine, so even though they look like they’re strolling, they’re crossing large swaths of ground quickly. And they are doing so without even trying. An elephant running will bear down on you a lot faster than your brain can process, precisely BECAUSE of that relativism. You may come across an elephant 300 meters away from you and think you’re far enough away to be in a safe zone, and then suddenly that same elephant is your face in barely enough time for you to blink. So I recommend you do not piss off an elephant.

Usually, the way you find elephants is by the sound of breaking branches. Sometimes by their low rumbling. Even occasionally by their bubbly farts, which really do sound like a kid blowing bubbles. But they can travel silently when they want to do so. And I do mean silently.

There have been many mornings when I’ve woken up and walked outside my tent to see fresh spoor from not one, but many elephants, just on the other side of my door. And I didn’t have the faintest notion they had travelled past in the night. I heard nothing. To give you some perspective, I am a light sleeper. As in if a mouse farted, I’d wake up. And yet elephants always manage to give me the slip, which is one of the many reasons I find them so fascinating – they are multi-tonne Houdinis.

Most people focus on an elephant’s trunk, which is a fantastic bit of evolutionary brilliance. It has no less than 40,000 muscles in it (and up to 150,000 portions of muscles). As a comparison, an entire human body has about 650 muscles. Total.

The trunk can be used as a snorkel when they swim; as a hose to wash them off; as a straw to drink; as a sort of hand to forage for food; and as an arm to throw things at whatever they don’t like. I know – I’ve had one throw grass at me when he got annoyed with the uninvited ‘guest’ (me) who arrived unbidden during dinner and just wouldn’t take the hint to leave. The grass-throwing was the final hint of his that alerted me to move off, as I (not always the fastest on the uptake) realized the elephant was truly getting annoyed at having his peace and quiet interrupted by a camera-happy human settled in and staring at him from a mere 3 meters away.

The trunk is dexterous and gentle enough to act as a finger to scratch an itch or rub gunk out of an eye. And it is even used when greeting other elephants, kind of like a handshake. But, rather than focus on that amazing appendage, I’m focused on the feet. Why the feet?  Well, to me, it’s incredible that an animal of such immense size can manage to navigate through forests and woodlands in almost total silence. And that’s all due to the foot structure. Nature, that genius of design, once again created a perfect combination of form and function to suit the needs of her children.

Because of the amazing engineering in the structure of an elephant’s foot, elephants can walk right past you without making a sound. This is made possible because of fatty connective tissue in their feet that acts like both a shock absorber for their weight and a sound smotherer of potential location giveaways such as cracking twigs. In fact, their foot structure is such that elephants walk around on the tips of their toes, meaning they pretty much tiptoe through life. Animals like horses, rhinos, and sheep also do this. But, and no offense to the other animals that travel digitigrade-style, I think it’s much more impressive that elephants do it. I mean, they ARE the size of a small house and all.

And what’s more amazing, they can HEAR through their feet.

If you ever spend time with elephants, you’ll likely notice the sounds they make. It’s hard not to notice them since elephants are rather chatty creatures. Sometimes they make a low rumbling sound that sounds a little like they’re humming a Gregorian chant. Sometimes they stomp their feet (which, in this particular case, DOES make a noise, though it’s still relatively muted when you think about all the weight behind each stomp). Sometimes they trumpet and scream. Yes, scream. Well, those sounds (and even lower seismic ones they produce that humans cannot hear) can travel great distances (as much as 20 kilometers!). And elephants can pick up the vibrations of those sounds (and what those sounds mean) through their feet. They ‘hear’ another elephant from miles away just by listening through their tootsies. I know I’m an animal nerd, but how can anyone NOT be impressed by the fact that an elephant can communicate with another elephant several kilometers away by listening through their feet?

If you want to learn more about this, check out:

Elephants “Hear” Warnings With Their Feet, Study Confirms – National Geographic

Elephants pick up good vibrations — through their feet – Science Daily

12 facts to change the way you see elephants – Mother Nature Network

And a few photos of those lovely feet, some trunk, and the whole package:

 

Advertisements
Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Elephant, nature, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#WorldElephantDay and Another Jane Goodall Life Lesson: Value Your Family

I will honestly admit I forgot about these life lessons blogs. Well, I didn’t forget about the life lessons. I just forgot to create more blog posts around them. But with #WorldElephantDay upon us, I can’t think of a more pertinent life lesson that hits the heart of what elephants are facing today than this one – the need to value family.

I dedicate this blog to elephants not just because they live in family groups and value each other, but because they are part of our animal family, and we are not valuing them. Unless they are dead. And I think that’s pretty kak, to borrow a word from South Africa’s vast and creative repertoire of words.

Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings. They mourn their dead. They celebrate the living. They play, they fight, they hold grudges. They remember. Yes, they remember. Haven’t you ever heard the saying “I have a memory like an elephant?” There’s an excellent reason for that analogy. Don’t believe it? Piss off an elephant. They won’t forget you, and they won’t hesitate to get retribution. You don’t want an animal that can weigh up to 7 tons and can blast through forests and flatten cars without breaking stride targeting you for retribution. I have seen them take down fully grown trees without even uttering as much as a tiny grunt of exertion. It was awe-inspiring. And humbling. And it made me reevaluate how much (or, more appropriately, how little) I could rely on my vehicle to protect me in the event of a committed charge from an angry pachyderm.

Solo elephants are fun to watch, but – to me – it’s elephant social dynamics that are most fascinating to see. Herds are led by a matriarch, the oldest elephant in the group. She and the other elder females pass on knowledge and wisdom to the rest of the members of the group. The matriarch remembers migration routes and imparts that information on to her younger siblings, daughters, and granddaughters and their offspring.

Males stay with the herd until they reach the teenage years, at which time they are permanently ousted from the group and seek their fortunes in finding love elsewhere.

The elders take a vested interest in teaching the young, and all members of the herd take a vested interest in protecting each other from outside threats. They rally around their own and put up an impressive front when threatened. And this isn’t just the females, which dominate the herd dynamic. Bull males will often mentor younger bulls. Kill the elder elephants and you kill the teachers, which is why so many ‘rogue’ male elephants end up getting shot as ‘problem animals.’ They haven’t been taught how to stay in line. They are teenagers with no guidance and nothing to lose, mainly because they don’t know any better. No different than human teenagers in the same situation.

It is no longer surprising to me that the main reason for these ‘problem animals’ is human activity.

Elephants are a keystone species, which means ecosystem stability depends on their existence in it. Yet elephants, like every other animal on this planet, are under threat from that very distant and selfish relative who manages to cause infinite damage to nature without even batting an eyelash or bothering to consider the ramifications of its actions. Yep, good ol’ humankind. Elephants are losing the battle to survive because of humanity’s tendency to take without thinking, to take without giving back, and to take without considering the cost. And that cost is life. Life of elephants.

All for ivory.

Elephants are under massive threat because we like their teeth. Which, if you think about it, has to be one of the most ridiculous things in the world. We kill them for their teeth. We kill these incredible, sentient beings with families, histories, and personalities, for their teeth. And not all their teeth. Just those two big ones that stick out. The tusks. When did humans become so enamored of enamel? And why? Why are we the only species in the world that will happily destroy a species so we can put a trinket around our neck or on our mantle? Or a head on a wall?

Though elephants are the largest land animals on earth, they are in many ways a mirror of ourselves. They work together and figure things out. They are curious. They are caring. And they are disappearing at a rate of close to 50,000 per year. They are running out of time. We are running out of time to save them.

To see them go extinct will be catastrophic not only for the ecosystems they keep in balance, but for future generations of our own, who will never know the magnificent, clever, generous, tender, and formidable nature of these unique life forms. If we allow them to go extinct, we allow the worst of our nature – greed, ignorance, and ego – to win out. If we lose them, we might as well admit we lose a part of ourselves, and a good part at that. And we can never get it back.

Please, let us value our family. Don’t buy ivory products. Don’t ride elephants. Don’t shoot them for sport. Let us come together to ensure elephants survive long into the future.

If you want to learn more about the poaching crisis decimating elephant populations (and see if you might be unknowingly contributing to the damage) consider watching a documentary called The Ivory Game. This isn’t a blame game. It’s an awareness game. And if we’re not willing to educate ourselves about our potential role in a problem, how can we expect to fix the problem, right?

If you’re keen on learning more about elephants in general, check out the following links.

Also, I’m going to be posting some of my elephant stories in the upcoming weeks, so keep an eye out if you want to hear about some personal experiences with these gray giants.

Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts About Elephants

Smithsonian: 14 Fun Facts About Elephants

Africa Geographic: 10 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

TED-Ed Blog: 12 Amazing Facts About Elephants

Scientific American: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized

San Diego Zoo Zoonooz: Dangerous Road – Demand and Greed Drive the Market

 

 

Categories: adventure, Africa, Big 5, Conservation, Education, Elephant, environmental management, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, nature, poaching, science, South Africa, trophy hunting, Wildlife, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: