Let’s talk about African vs Asian elephants. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it can be easy to mistake an African elephant for an Asian elephant, and vice versa.
If you’d like to be able to tell the difference with just a glance there are a few obvious physical features that make these two species easy to tell apart – the ear and head shape in particular are quick identifiers. Along with these, there are a number of other differences between the two species. so let’s get on and explore exactly what there are.
African savannah elephants vs African forest elephants
Before we delve into each of the differences between the African elephant and Asian elephant it’s worth noting that in fact, many people believe that there are two distinct African elephant species.
In 2000 scientists recategorized the African elephant species into the larger African savanna elephant (sometimes called the African bush elephant) (Loxodonta africana) and the slightly smaller African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
These two types of elephants have some small physical and genetic differences, but there are still arguments over whether the differences are large enough to justify categorizing them as two different species.
While the two types of African elephants are different in size and favoured habitats, they both have more features in common with one another than with the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).
Difference between African elephant vs Asian elephant
There are at least 10 physical characteristics that differentiate the Asian elephant vs African elephant. The most noticeable physical differences between the elephants can be seen in the head and ear shapes, and the size of the elephants.
Let’s look at all 10 physical differences in detail:
1. Head shape
Asian and African elephants have distinctly different head shapes, making them easy to tell apart from a distance.
African elephants have fuller, more rounded heads, and the top of their head is a single dome shape. Asian elephants have a twin-domed head with an indent running up the center of their head.
2. Size & shape of ears
Perhaps an even more obvious way to distinguish an African vs Asian elephant from a distance is to look at their ears.
African elephants have much larger ears, shaped a little like the continent of Africa. Asian elephant’s ears are smaller, and more semi-circular.
Both elephant species use their ears to dissipate body heat, and as African elephants live in hotter climates with more direct sunlight than Asian elephants they need to dissipate more heat. Hence the larger ears:
3. Size & weight
The African elephant is the larger of the two elephants, with bulls growing up to 4 meters tall. By contrast, the biggest Asian males reach no more than 3.5 meters. One interesting note on elephant height – the African elephant is tallest at the shoulder, while the Asian elephant’s tallest point is its back.
Because of the differences in their size, adult African elephants weigh between 4,000 and 8,000kg, whilst Asian elephants are lighter, weighing in at between 3000 and 6,000kg.
4. Appearance & size of tusks
Not all elephants have tusks. Both male and female African elephants can have tusks, but only male Asian elephants have tusks. Female Asian elephants have rudimentary tusks called tushes, which can be also found in some males.
However, it’s worth noting that not all male Asian elephants grow tusks, and with African elephants, while both sexes generally exhibit tusks, there are some cases without tusks.
As a rule African elephant tusks are bigger than Asian elephant tusks.
5. The Trunk
An African elephant’s trunk has more visible rings on it, and is not as hard to the touch as the Asian elephant trunk.
The end of their trunks are also very different – the African elephant trunk has two distinct ‘fingers’ which they use to pick up and manipulate objects. The Asian elephant has only one ‘finger’ at the end of its trunk, which they compensate for by holding objects against the underside of their trunk.
6. Lower lip shape
The lower lips of the two elephants differ, though you can only really notice this one if you’re close up and the elephant has a raised trunk and open mouth… something of an intimidating position to be in!
An African elephant’s lower lips are short and round, whereas Asian elephants have long, tapered lower lips.
7. Skin texture
The African elephants’ skin is more wrinkled than the Asian elephants’ smoother skin.
This is actually due to the African elephant’s skin having more cracks, that were recently discovered to hold water, helping to keep the animals cool and preventing dehydration in their dry habitats. The cracks are formed by the outermost layer of skin getting thicker and bending, until the brittle skin layer fractures under the strain.
8. Number of toenails
All elephants have 5 toes on each foot, but not every toe has a nail. The number of toenails varies between the African bush elephant, African forest elephant, and Asian elephant:
- African forest elephants: 5 toenails on the front feet and 4 on the back feet
- African bush elephants: 4 toenails on the front feet and 3 on the back feet
- Asian elephants: 5 toenails on the front feet and 4 on the back feet
There are also a number of physical differences between the Asian and African elephants you’d be unlikely to pick up from a game drive sighting. The two most significant of these physical differences are:
9. Number of ribs
The number of ribs an individual elephant has varies from animal to animal, but African elephants tend to have more ribs than the Asian species, with up to 21 pairs of ribs vs the Asian elephants average of 20 pairs of ribs.
10. Teeth shape
All elephant teeth are pre-molars or molars. African elephant teeth are ‘loxadont’ (or sloping), a term which gives them their scientific name Africana Loxadonta. In contrast, Asian elephant teeth have a compressed diamond-shaped tooth profile.
Aside from these 10 physical differences, there is a big difference between African and Asian elephants in range and diet:
There is no overlap in the ranges of African and Asian elephants, so they’re never found together in the wild.
Asian elephants live in forested areas across Southern Asia – from Nepal, through India, and across Sri Lanka – and throughout Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia.
African elephants range across the rainforests of West and Central Africa, and through the savannas and deserts of Africa. The most northern area of the African elephant’s range is the Sahel area of Mali where a small, nomadic herd of Mali elephants perform a circular annual migration in search of water.
Both species of elephants eat a wide variety of plant matter found in their ranges, but there are differences in their diets.
Whereas African elephants act as ecological filters by breaking tree saplings and stripping them of their foliage, Asian elephants are daintier eaters, preferring grasses, bamboo, and palms to tree saplings. Read more about what elephants eat.
In theory, elephants are amongst the longest living animals, and live longer than any other land mammal aside from humans. Due to their size and physiology African and Asian elephants have different expected lifespans in the wild:
- African elephants can live up to 70 years
- Asian elephants can live up to 48 years
Social similarities between African and Asian elephants
- The females and children of all species of elephants live in herds with well-defined social structures.
- Herds are matriarchies, with the oldest female leading the group.
- Pubescent males leave their family herds and form bachelor male herds, and once they reach old age tend to leave these bachelor groups to become solitary males.
And that’s the lots for this round-up of Asian vs African elephants. What do you think – any differences between the elephant species that surprised you? Or any more differences between them we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments section below!