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Elephant dentition and feeding behavior

Elephant dentition and feeding behavior

Elephant dentition is fascinating. The conspicuous tusks are modified incisors and are used for, digging, chiseling the bark off trees and as weapons of defence. Humans have a preference for using one or the other hand for performing certain tasks. We refer to them being right or left handed. Well, elephants too prefer using either the right or left tusk. The tusk that works harder is therefore shorter and generally sharper, unless it breaks off which can happen during combat or when working with it. Females have smaller tusks. Elephant have six sets of molars during their lifetime. As the molars wear down they are replaced from the back. A new set of molars appears approximately at 1, 2, 6, 15, 28 and 47 years. As the last molar begins to wear away the elephant finds it progressively more difficult to chew food properly and a slow but inevitable death from starvation is the ultimate end of an elephant not succumbing to disease. Elephant longevity is, on average, 60 years

Pushing over trees, damage and destruction
There is a delicate balance, between elephant populations and their environment. Elephants do cause damage to their habitat – especially because of their tendency to push over or uproot large trees. Seen in context this is not always a negative phenomenon. Where fire has been suppressed and has not been allowed to play it’s natural role, bush enroachment results. The bush becomes too dense and even impenetrable. This results in the exclusion of many species that prefer more open habitat.

Elephant therefore perform an important role in a situation such as this by opening up dense habitat and making it more accessible and more attractive to species preferring more open areas. Taken to the extreme however can have the opposite effect. By removing or destroying too many trees and bush it can reduce suitable habitat of species such nyala, bushbuck, bushpig, and suni for example. Destroying large trees can also pose a threat to certain tree species such as knobthorns (Acacia nilotica) and boabab (Adansonia digitata). Control of elephant populations has always posed a dilemma for wildlife managers and has lead to heated debate and divergences of opinion in the past. Such a showdown is looming once again in the Kruger National Park. Due to unenlightened public opinion and severe political pressure the control (culling) of elephants was stopped in 1996. Subsequent to this the elephant population has increased alarmingly and is causing significant habitat damage. The question – to cull or not too cull – is soon to become a political hot potato once again. Hopefully common sense will prevail and biodiversity will triumph. Only time will tell.

The elephant trunk.
Some old wise guy once posed a question and answered it as well. “How do you stop an elephant charge? Quite easy in fact. When he gets close enough grab him by his nose, put in a trunk call and ask the operator to reverse charges!”. Easier said than done and one can be pretty sure that the originator of this bit of “wise” bush lore had never personally stood in front of a charging elephant.

The trunk of an elephant is a remarkable organ and has been likened to an exceptionally powerful and remarkably dexterous two fingered hand. Look at the tip of the trunk. The two lips can pick up tiny twigs yet the trunk is powerful enough to tear down trees. Trunk dexterity is not very good in young calves but improves with age as the young calves learn to master the thing that seems to have a life of it’s own. The trunk is of course a modified nose and is used, apart from being a very able extra “hand”, for smelling. If you watch elephant you will see them periodically lift the trunk high into the air stream to get a good “whiff” of their surroundings. If they smell anything strange or dangerous they will soon call the rest of the herds attention to the fact and they will move off. The trunk also serves as a pipe to draw up water during drinking, dust for dust bathing, and is a convenient snorkel used when swimming.