Episode 122 – African Elephant: The Savannah’s Bulldozer

“…and today we’re going to talk about the elephant in the room. More on that for the entire episode…”

Striding across the African Savannah in a constant search for food, the African Elephant is the largest land animal in the world. But in spite of its size, the elephant is a master of subtlety. When large family groups are social distancing in the wilderness, it’s vital that they stay connected remotely without alerting anyone nearby who may be looking for a snack of elephantine proportions. But communicating under the radar is all part of the elephant’s survival here in LDT.


  • African elephants are big and grey.
  • So big that they are the largest land animal on earth in terms of mass.
  • African elephants are distinct from Asian elephants based on their larger ears.
    • Big animals have the opposite problem to smaller animals. They need to keep cool. So they have a slow metabolism, so their metabolic engines don’t burn as hot. 
    • Their large flat ears are useful in helping elephants cool down. 
    • Warm blood runs through the ears, close to the outside air.
    • The elephants fan these ears to cool down the blood as it goes back into the body.
    • You can do the same things by splashing cold water where blood runs close to the skin like your ears, wrists, and face on a hot day.
  • Elephants also have distinctive tree trunk like feet that help distribute their large weight more sturdily.
  • And speaking of trunks, they have a six foot long nose called a trunk which is useful in reaching plants, and even grabbing things. 

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We have a new measure up intro as we return to the Nantahala Forest saga. 


  • The largest ever was shot in Angola in the 50s and it was 3.96 m (13.0 ft) at the shoulder
  • On average, they are about 3.20 m (10 ft.) at the shoulder.
  • How many short-eared elephant shrews go into the height of an elephant?
  • Hint: Elephant shrews are so named because of their elongated noses. They’re also incredibly cute, especially the black and rufous elephant shrew.
  • Answer: 26 shrews. The shrew is 150 mm (5.9 in).


  • The largest ever was 24,000 lb (11,000 kg)
  • On average, males are 13,200 pounds.
  • How many smart cars go into the average male elephant?
  • Hint: Smart is a German car brand that produces small cars designed for cities. Swatch CEO Nicolas Hayek started developing the idea in 1982 with the notion to approach car manufacturing with the Swatch manufacturing model and it was originally called the Swatchmobile. Swatch watches were originally designed to be your second watch, a casual, disposable watch.
  • 8.8 cars. Smart cars are about 1,500 pounds.

Fast Facts

There’s a million things to talk about like their relative intelligence, social structure, memory, and their ability to grieve and show affection. But I narrowed it down to three very interesting fast facts.

The African Elephant isn’t the only large animal in Africa.

  • In fact, in the top 10 most massive animals, 8 live in Africa and two, the Asian Elephant and the Gaur live in India.
  • There are a variety of reasons Africa may be so prolific in terms of big boys.
  • The most likely is the vast available habitat. 
  • Humans are usually pointed to as the cause for extinction among large animals.
    • Organized hunting is always tempered by the size of the prey versus the size of the group. The bigger your group the more food you need to share.
    • Humans are the most prolific hunters of big game because we are very good at tactics and throwing stuff.  
    • For instance, a wolf has to shove their face into an enemy to bring it down, where hunter gatherer humans could stand far away and throw spears.
    • Even pre-industry people were a major threat to animals like the American Buffalo.
    • But post-industry people also develop a lot of land, which cuts into the needed territory of large animals. 
    • Africa has loads of space and forested area for large animals to hide in and it has had more undeveloped land than other continents of the world.
    • Still, other factors like poaching and the ivory trade have put elephants and other big animals at risk.

Elephant trunks are also related to the animal’s size.

  • An elephant’s size means it’s mouth is far away from the ground.
  • They don’t have long, dextrous necks like giraffes.
  • If they don’t find food an water that’s mouth hight, they need to be able to bring those things to their mouths. 
  • Trunks are used for everything from feeding, dusting, drinking, defense, and anything else they might need to do.
  • Trunks are so prehensile, they even have little finger-like doohickies on the end to gripping stuff. 
  • Trunks are thought to be controlled by as many as 60,000 muscles.

African Elephant Bulls through a seasonal condition called musth, which is shrouded in debate and mystery.

  • Musth is characterized by swollen temporal glands that produce a discharge, extreme aggression, very high testosterone levels.
  • Testosterone levels can be as high as 60 times their normal levels.
  • Musth typically happens in the winter, and some have speculated that elephants go through musth as a part of a rut, a seasonal mating period in which females are ready to reproduce and males compete for their affections.
    • However, females don’t have seasonal estrus cycles.
    • And males can become so enraged that they attack and kill females during musth.
  • This phenomenon isn’t well-studied, because even the most mild and gentle elephants become hostile to researchers during musth.
  • Bull elephants in musth have been reported to attack and kill people, rhinos, buffalos, other elephants, and basically anything that they don’t like. 
  • It’s very difficult to keep male elephants in captivity for this reason, and methods for dealing with musth seems to be tranquilizers, isolation for months at a time, or a week of starvation which shortens musth.
  • However, it’s been found that musth typically occurs in young males when no older male is present. Introducing an older male seems to prevent musth from occurring.

Major Fact: Rumble in the Jungle

  • Elephants have many distinct features that make them instantly recognizable. But no crude drawing of one of these sorta-gentle giants would be complete without their huge floppy ears.
  • These ears are used for keeping flies away as well as communicating happiness or aggression, but, like most ears, they’re primarily used for hearing.
  • And these guys are some of the best hearers
  • Since elephants don’t have too much to worry about in terms of predators (though a hunting party of lions can take one down) they’re usually listening for other elephant noises.
    • We usually think of an elephant noise to be that iconic trumpeting, but it also makes a variety of other sounds including barks, grunts, snorts, roars, and high-pitched cries and whines. 
    • All of these can be picked up at almost a mile away by other elephants with their exceptional ears.

But their most common sound is a low-frequency grumble that is so low, that humans can’t even hear it.

  • Humans can hear from 20-20,000 Hz
    • Men speak at about 110 Hz, women at 220 Hz, and children at 300 Hertzog.
    • Elephants can create sounds as low as 5 Hz, but most of their calls are around 12-15 Hz – infrasonic levels.
  • But don’t confuse a low frequency with a soft sound. The decibel level for these rumbles in the jungle can get up to 112 decibels, which is almost as loud as an ambulance siren. Pretty close to the pain threshold at 125 Db.
  • Because higher tones fade out as sound travels, the elephants can judge how far away the caller is by checking the area code on his caller ID.
    • Actually, he can judge it by how low the frequency is.
  • But here’s the catch, these rumbles can be heard through the ears, but they’re also heard through the feet.
    • Zoologists (loxodontists?) believe that sound travels through the ground, up the elephant’s toenails, and reverberates in his ear bones. It could also be special sensory receptors in the foot similar to what’s in the trunk.
    • This means that elephants can use these rumbles as well as foot stomps to send a zoom call to friends and family members who are social distancing up to 6 miles away and within a range of 40 square miles.
  • Elephants can use this subtle long-range communication to warn others of predators, find mates, coordinate with traveling family, or alert others to resources like food and water during droughts.

Ending: So, when you see danger, stomp your feet, give a little rumble, and keep your ears and feet open like the African Elephant here in LDT.


Hey everyone, Carlos here. We’d love it if we could just stomp our feet and rumble deeply to alert everyone in a 6-mile radius of interesting animal info, but alas, we are too small and our ears don’t work so good. So instead, we rely on listeners like you to spread the word! Don’t miss an opportunity to tell people about how interesting our animal info is here, even if it means interjecting during someone else’s conversation, speech, or eulogy. There is literally never a bad time to tell your family and soon-to-be ex-friends about our show here. You can also leave a review on your favorite podcasting app…that works too. In any case, thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week!