- Elephant tusks are the teeth that stick out of the mouth. Since elephants are herbivores, their tusks are extensions of the incisors used to crush food.
- As a defense mechanism, elephant tusks help protect one of their most important features: their trunks. They are also very important foraging tools.
- The structure of ivory is similar to human teeth. There are four layers of pulp, cementum, dentin, and finally the outer layer of enamel. Ivory never stops growing and it is possible to judge the age of an elephant.
- The ivory trade was popular in Africa from the 15th century to the 19th century. Because of its rarity, ivory was considered an easy-to-craft tool and a status symbol. The ivory trade was banned in 2017.
From the floppy ears, to the huge trunk, to the truly massive size, there’s a lot that stands out about the elephant. But ivory is both a valuable tool and a potential burden for these gentle giants. The desire for ivory makes elephants a popular target for illegal poaching and can have devastating effects on their populations. Here’s everything you need to know about ivory, from what it’s made from, to what purpose they serve elephants, to why they’ve become such a popular fashion icon around the world.
What is ivory?
A tusk is simply a type of tooth that extends beyond the mouth, and like any other evolutionary trait, they’ve been there because they managed to be a useful utility for the creature. Elephants aren’t the only mammals with tusks, either. Elephants are distantly related to the tusk-bearing mammoths that existed millions of years ago – but tusks can also be found in walruses, pigs and the rare narwhal. In most animals, tusks are an example of elongated canines — teeth used to tear apart food. But since elephants are herbivores, their tusks are made of elongated incisors — teeth used to crush food. In fact, elephants don’t have any canine teeth at all.
How did elephants use ivory?
While it was once believed that tool use was a trait that distinguished humans from animals, over the past few decades it has become apparent that this is not the case at all. Elephants are among the most complex tool-using animals on Earth, thanks to their large brains and combined tusks and trunks.Elephants also used ivory as weapons and defensive tools. An elephant’s trunk is one of its most important tools for interacting with the world and one of the most sensitive parts of its body. Since it uses it for eating, breathing and drinking, the protrusion of the torso sticks out to protect it from attack. Just as stags use their antlers to vie for status among their own species, male elephant elephants use their tusks to intimidate rivals and sometimes fight for territory or breeding rights.However, the most common and important role of ivory is as a foraging tool. Elephants use their tusks to strip bark from trees, which they then eat, providing an important balance of fiber to their diet. But these clever creatures can also use their tusks to forage in more ingenious ways. By using its tusks as shovels, elephants can find water under dry river beds—they can even dig to find important minerals and salts necessary for a balanced diet.These animals were able to use their tusks as tools, but they also displayed a rare ability to actually make their own tools — and the tusks played a crucial role in this process. Elephants have long been thought to use tree branches to repel flies and fan themselves against the heat, but researchers have discovered that they are actually able to adjust these branches in the wild to be more efficient. They use their tusks and feet to strip and resize branches. In many cases, ivory can be used to carry heavy objects from one place to another. Ivory is a valuable tool, but elephants manage to make them even more valuable thanks to their impressive intelligence.
What is ivory made of?
If you understand the anatomy of human teeth, you’ll have a decent idea of the structure of elephant tusks. The structure here is basically the same, consisting of four parts like the anatomy of a tooth. The outer layer of enamel acts as a protective covering for the deeper parts of the tooth. Dentin makes up the next layer, which translates into deeper nerve ending sensations like heat and cold. A layer of cementum holds the tooth in place and keeps it from loosening. The pulp, which forms the very center of the ivory, is a bundle of nerve endings, blood vessels, and connective tissue. The pulp distributes the nutrients and minerals needed to keep the ivory strong and healthy.Fundamentally, these structures are identical to those of human teeth – but the unique physiology of elephants ensures that there are differences between them. The fact that ivory protrudes from the body and is used as a rough tool means that enamel tends to wear away quickly. Just like most people have a favored hand, elephants have a favored tooth, which can be identified by the tooth with the most worn enamel. While the part of the tusk we can see is scary in itself, it’s only a small part of the overall tusk – most of it is buried deep in the elephant’s mouth. Unlike teeth, ivory grows over time. You can even estimate an elephant’s age by comparing its tusk size to the size of other tusks of the same age and species.
Why are ivory so precious?
Chemically there is no difference between teeth and ivory, but ivory is still a major business — and one that drives the illegal elephant poaching trade. Instead, its value is largely determined by cultural status and scarcity. The difficulty of hunting elephants in the past—combined with the relatively limited geographic density of elephants—meaned that items made of ivory were treasured possessions. The fact that ivory is soft, pliable and easy to work has made it a prized exotic commodity all over the world. The African ivory trade flourished between the 15th and 19th centuries, but they remained a source of popular luxury goods well into the 20th century. Ivory was used as piano keys until the 1980s. While major moves were made towards the end of the century to ban the trade, some countries were slower to embrace the movement than others. China in particular has been one of the largest consumers of ivory. While the sale of ivory products was banned in 2017, a rising younger and affluent generation sees ivory’s appeal as a status symbol.
Can an elephant live if its tusks are removed?
Humans might survive tooth extraction, but elephant teeth are more serious. Since the tusk is deeply embedded in the elephant’s skull, extracting it completely is much more complicated. While it is technically possible to sedate an elephant and remove its tusk, it would be a difficult and painful process because the nerves run directly through the tusk.Regardless, poachers have neither the means nor the interest to enjoy any such delicacy. Elephants are still very deadly creatures and it is much easier to simply kill an elephant and take their tusks. Even though it’s a painless procedure, many elephants rely on their tusks for basic survival skills. Losing access to ivory is no different than losing a hand.Nearly 90 percent of African statues were wiped out in the last century due to the ivory trade. An estimated 415,000 wild African elephants are alive today. Asian elephants are also in decline, with an estimated 30,000 left in 2017. They are still being poached in some countries.
Do all elephants have tusks?
While many elephants used tusks as valuable tools and weapons, not all elephants had tusks. Traditionally, both male and female African statues have tusks, while only some male Asian statues have protruding tusks. Smaller tusks can be found in both female and male Asiatic figures.However, tuskless members of both species are increasing. When poachers hunt the elephants with the most prominent trunks, they are taking them out of the breeding tanks. Today, half of the female elephant elephants in Africa are born without tusks, and this trend occurs in males as well. It’s a recent, rapid, and worrisome development — but the researchers suggest that this tuskless trait could become the dominant criterion.
Are other tusk-bearing animals at risk from poachers?
Elephants aren’t the only animals hunted for their ivory-like tusks. Walrus ivory is an important part of many native cultures that depend on meat for their survival, and it has been speculated that the Vikings’ thirst for ivory may have driven Icelandic walruses to extinction. Throughout history, various species of whales have also been poached for ivory. There is even a thriving (if much smaller) market for warthog ivory amid tourism in South and East Africa. While hippos don’t have traditional tusks, their prominent canines are a popular target for illegal poachers.
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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