Elephants are one of the most iconic creatures on this planet. They’re the largest land animals, the only surviving members of their order, and they’re highly intelligent social beings. African elephants have been here for a million and a half years. On the tip of an African elephant’s trunk are two finger-like extensions that can be pinched together to grasp even the tiniest morsel. And inside, it’s even more intricate.
The elephant’s trunk contains more than a hundred thousand muscle units. Fluid within the muscle cells becomes firm when compressed, working as a hydraulic system, offering superb flexibility and rigidity. Different sections of the trunk can work independently and can bend or twist, lengthen and shorten. It’s one of the most versatile tools in the animal kingdom. When combined with their tusks, the elephant is formidable.
Human intervention is changing the face of this incredible creature. During the 1500s, an estimated twenty-six million elephants roamed the African continent. Today, it’s less than 500,000. In the 1970s and 80s, elephant tusks reached crisis levels. So in 1989, an international agreement banned the global ivory trade. But in the past several years, tusks have returned to high levels. This chart shows the percentage of African elephant deaths caused by poaching since 2003.
What is elephant tusk?
On either side of the elephant’s trunk are the tusks. The tusks are just merely an adaption of their incisor teeth. Elephants don’t need front teeth because they don’t bite or chew anything off. They just stuff everything in their mouth and grind it up. Typically elephants have only eight molars at the back, and those are used for chewing.
Their incisor teeth stayed and adapted into these big tusks because those are used for many things from defense to attracting mates. The most distinguishing feature of the elephant is its tusks. It’s strong enough to push over a tree but nimble enough to pick up a piece of hay.
Why do elephants have tusks?
Elephant’s teeth grow in cycles throughout their lives. The molars start at the back of their mouth and gradually move forward, pushing out the older ones worn down. It’s like a conveyer belt. And these teeth can be replaced up to 6 times during the elephant’s life. Elephants’ tusks occur in both males and females, and they’re modified teeth. Incisors develop in the upper jaw and replace milk teeth around 6 months after birth. They can keep growing as much as 17 centimeters a year and can reach 3 meters in length. It is because elephants favor one tusk over another. They tend to be worn down at different rates.
At six to 12 months old, elephants start to grow their tusks. The tusks are mainly used for digging, debarking, or marking trees, moving things around, and for defensive purposes. As a rule, female Asian elephants lack visible tusks like humans with right or left-hand preference. Elephants can be right or left tusks as a result. Due to continuous usage, the dominant tusk is more worn and usually not as long as the other.
- Normally, more than 90% of female African elephants have tusks.
- Evolution is a process that has been happening for a very long time and driver of that process.
To better understand how the tusk trait is evolving under selection from poaching, genes are responsible for tusk development. Tusks themselves are modified teeth. All mammals generally share the same genetic program for building teeth. The elephant counterpart to at least some of these genes is most likely also involved in tusk development.
The tusks of Proboscidean are just giant and highly specialized teeth. While looking at some of the earliest elephant ancestors like Moeritherium are very primitive. Elephant tusks are large teeth and were most likely only slightly exposed. They would have started as these exposed teeth that were just slightly outside of the mouth. Then over time, it became enlarged and was most likely used for different jobs at different points in the enlargement. Some of the earliest tusks, like Palaeomastodon, had a very strange tusk structure compared with modern elephants.
They had a small pair of normal elephant tusks, and their bottom teeth and large and created two tusks protruding from their chin. It means that nearly all of the other Proboscidean would have been descendants of these odd tusk creatures. It is the reason for the loss of different Proboscideans having different tusk structures. It is because animals like Deinotherium would have lost their top tusks just being left with the chin tusks. And animals like Mastodons would have lost their chin tusks being left with the top row.
Elephants tusks usage and facts
Elephant ivory tusks are just large teeth, but they’ve been used in artworks, ornaments, jewelry, and even piano keys for centuries. Ivory’s value has been compared to diamonds, and it’s a status symbol. The rise of China’s middle class has pushed up demand for ivory there, where it sells for around $1100 per kilogram. One-third of an elephant’s tusks are in its skull, which contains a pulpy cavity of tissues, blood vessels, and nerves. That means they can’t be preemptively removed by conservationists, an approach that has been applied to rhino horns, which aren’t ivory but are also sought after in Asia.
Conservationists can safely remove up to 93% of a rhino’s horn, but it’s impossible to remove that much from elephants. But in recent decades, there’s been an increasing trend of elephants being born tuskless. While most African elephants of both sexes have tusks, around 2 to 6 percent are naturally born tuskless. Now, decades of heavy poaching have made that trait more common.
In Gorongosa National Park, The older female elephants who survived the war, over half were tuskless. And of the younger females born after the war, 33% were tuskless. It is because tuskless elephants were less likely to be killed by poachers. The tuskless trait became more common in the next generation. Scientists have also found that, on average, tusks are smaller than they were a century ago.
Like trustlessness, smaller tusks provide a survival advantage against poaching. But it comes at a cost. Tusklessness is not likely to save the species from poaching and habitat loss. Through determined conservation efforts, some African national parks are seeing growth in their elephant populations. And China has announced that by the end of 2017, they will end domestic sales and processing of ivory. Along with stronger incentives to protect elephant habitats and support local anti-poaching programs. It might give elephants the leg or tusk up they need to secure their future on this planet.
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