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Which Elephant is Which?

By Bart Wursten

Elephant1_resizedThe molars of an elephant give us an accurate tool to determine its age. Elephants have one large molar in each half of the upper and lower jaw.  These molars are transversely ridged and perfectly suited to chew the masses of fibrous food an elephant eats.  Elephants are equipped with six consecutive sets of them.  Over the years the old set wears down and is slowly pushed forward and replaced by the next.  This way elephants are one of the few animals who, given the chance, can totally fulfill their lives and die of old age.  When the last set of molars has worn out, an elephant’s time is up and it won't be able to feed itself any longer.

The ivory of the tusks appears to be highly influenced by the mineral content in the elephant's diet. In Botswana, for instance, large tuskers are extremely rare and a large percentage of the population has badly worn or broken tusks.  The main reason for this is a strong mineral deficiency in the Botswana soils and thus the food, which makes their ivory relatively soft and brittle. Also in certain populations in Africa, genetics play a large role and tuskless elephants or specimens with only one tusk are common.  Although both sexes have tusks, the really large tuskers are invariably bulls. Another obvious factor which plays an important role is the long periods of hunting and poaching, where the size of the tusks was the main interest and thus large tuskers or older elephants in general were the main target.
It goes without saying that in the field the molars won't be of much use, since elephants are definitely less inclined than a "gift horse" to be looked in the mouth. 

Elephant2Researchers mostly use the ears for identification.  Over the years most elephants will damage their ears and the tear holes and scars in one or both ears usually form a unique pattern by which it can be recognized.  Since elephants also have a tendency to spread their ears and raise their heads as a first sign of warning, this makes their unique ears even more visible.  Obviously one needs some training to quickly and properly identify elephants.  If a new researcher first needs to flick through a stack of photographs to help with the identification, he or she might just be in time to find out by which elephant he or she is about to be trampled.


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