Elephants are some of the largest animals on Earth, so you’d expect their teeth to be huge, too. But, you can’t see the elephants just by looking at them! At first glance they appear to have no teeth, except for their huge tusks. So, do elephants have teeth?
Also, how many teeth does the elephant have? What do they look like, and how big (or small) are they? Let’s take a closer look at elephant teeth!
What kind of teeth does the elephant have?
The main factor determining the shape, number and size of an animal’s teeth is its diet. After all, animals need specific kinds of teeth to eat different types of food. Flat teeth like molars are best for grinding vegetation, while sharp teeth like canines are best for tearing flesh and meat.
Elephants are completely herbivorous, except for the occasional insect or bird egg that they accidentally swallow while munching on large amounts of vegetation. Given this information, it’s no surprise that today’s elephants have only molars and premolars (except for their tusks, which are actually modified incisors – more on that later!).
These molars grow in the back of the elephant’s mouth, rather than in the upper and lower jaws like human teeth. Needless to say, their molars and premolars are huge! Each tooth is roughly the size and shape of a brick and weighs about 4.5 pounds.
Elephants also have textured ridges on their molars that help break down plant material further. The molar ridges of African elephants are diamond-shaped, while those of Asian elephants are mostly cylindrical.
How many teeth does the elephant have?
In total, African and Asian elephants have 26 teeth at any one time. Twelve of their teeth are wide, flat molars, and 12 are slightly narrower, more pointed premolars. The remaining two teeth are actually their ivory!
The newborn baby has only baby teeth and four small molars. Baby teeth are called “baby tusks” and are replaced by adult teeth when elephants are about two years old. Molars are also replaced by adults of about the same age.
Elephant’s teeth are constantly worn away by the abundance of leaves, grass, fruit and twigs, and these gentle giants must eat for around 16 to 20 hours a day to stay energetic. As a result, new teeth always grow to replace the old ones. Whenever a molar or premolar wears out or falls out, a new molar grows from behind and takes its place.
As a result of this process, elephants lose six sets of teeth during their lifetime. There are about 150 teeth!
Is ivory really a tooth?
As we briefly mentioned earlier, ivory is actually teeth! They are enlarged incisors that help elephants tear off bark and branches, dig holes for water, lift and move heavy objects for food, and even protect themselves from predators.
Additionally, male elephants tend to have larger tusks, which they often use to intimidate competing males during mating season. They even use their tusks to compete with other males for territory and food.
Interestingly, while elephants don’t necessarily need tusks to survive, without them they are much weaker and more susceptible to various hazards. Curiously, some female African elephants in Mozambique have recently begun to rapidly evolve to be completely tuskless from birth! The researchers believe this trait is a defense mechanism designed to protect elephants from excessive ivory poaching in the region.
Do elephants have no teeth?
An elephant’s teeth grow continuously throughout its life — in a way. Once an elephant grows all six sets of teeth, their places don’t grow back.
For most elephants, that’s usually enough to last them a long life. However, tooth loss is the leading cause of death for elephants over the age of 60-70. Without molars, elephants cannot properly chew and break down their food. So, in some cases, six sets of teeth are not enough.
In addition, the elephant has only one pair of tusks in its lifetime. While ivory is constantly growing, they are susceptible to various damages from heavy use over time. If its tusks are damaged or removed by poachers, the elephant becomes more vulnerable to predators and far less efficient at obtaining the large amounts of plant matter it needs to survive.
I am broadly interested in how human activities influence the ability of wildlife to persist in the modified environments that we create.
Specifically, my research investigates how the configuration and composition of landscapes influence the movement and population dynamics of forest birds. Both natural and human-derived fragmenting of habitat can influence where birds settle, how they access the resources they need to survive and reproduce, and these factors in turn affect population demographics. Most recently, I have been studying the ability of individuals to move through and utilize forested areas which have been modified through timber harvest as they seek out resources for the breeding and postfledging phases. As well I am working in collaboration with Parks Canada scientists to examine in the influence of high density moose populations on forest bird communities in Gros Morne National Park. Many of my projects are conducted in collaboration or consultation with representatives of industry and government agencies, seeking to improve the management and sustainability of natural resource extraction.
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