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Exploring the role and function of an elephant’s ears

Elephants are captivating creatures, and, over the years, we, at the Tsavo Trust, have made it our responsibility to inform you of all the many interesting facts and characteristics associated with them. They are wondrous creatures with such a huge variety of physical oddness that there is so much that is intriguing about them.

They’re pretty weird looking too. Describing these massive beings to an alien that had never visited this planet would present an fascinating challenge. Consider describing a massive, elongated nose that can uproot young trees, store up to five litres of water, and emit trumpeting sounds as loud as 110 decibels. Imagine enormous scythe-shaped teeth jutting from their mouths, formidable weapons that can weigh over 100 kg each.

These majestic animals, with their epic proportions, also possess a level of intelligence, capable of impressive feats of memory and communication. The list of fascinating elephant features could go on endlessly.

However, this article aims to delve into one of the most well-known attributes of African elephants:
their ears. We will be answering some of the questions surrounding these incredible ears, including what they do and why they do it.

Cooling the giants: why are elephant ears so big?

In the arid landscapes that elephants frequently inhabit, managing body temperature is not just a
comfort; it is a matter of survival. Unlike humans, elephants possess a sparse distribution of sweat
glands, with only a limited number clustered around their toenails. This physiological difference
means that elephants can’t rely on evaporative cooling through sweating, a mechanism that humans
use to dissipate heat. This is when an elephant’s remarkable ears come into play.

The ears of African elephants are marvels of adaptation, honed by evolution to master the art of
thermoregulation. These ears, which can reach astonishing dimensions of up to 6 feet in length and
5 feet in width, serve as their primary temperature control apparatus. Within their ear tissues, a
complex network of blood vessels and capillaries runs close to the skin’s surface. This intricate
system allows for rapid heat exchange with the surrounding environment.

As blood courses through the blood vessels within the ears, heat is efficiently conducted to the skin’s
surface. As air flows across the expansive surface area of the ears, heat dissipates, facilitating a
cooling effect. This mechanism is akin to the radiator of an automobile expelling excess heat to
prevent the engine from overheating.

To enhance the cooling effect, elephants employ various tactics. One of these strategies involves
rhythmic ear flapping. As elephants flap their ears, they generate micro winds that further aids in the
dissipation of body heat. This active movement can lower an elephant’s body temperature by a
remarkable 9 degrees Celsius, providing a life-saving reprieve from the relentless heat.
Additionally, elephants can position themselves strategically to optimize their cooling. Standing
facing the wind with their ears spread out, they harness the natural air currents to sweep away heat
from their bodies.

The multifaceted role of elephant ears becomes even more fascinating when considering their
sizeable blood flow. Astonishingly, elephants can circulate their entire blood volume through their
ears in a mere 20 minutes, highlighting the incredible efficiency of their cooling system.
The expansive ears of African elephants are not just remarkable anatomical features; they are a
marvel of thermal engineering. Through an intricate interplay of vascular networks, strategic
positioning, and rhythmic flapping, these impressive ears enable elephants to endure the most
unforgiving climates.

Unfurling emotions: exploring how elephants use their ears to communicate

These versatile ears also play a significant role in elephant communication. Elephants can
manipulate their ears in several ways to express different emotions. Flapping them, folding them
and flattening them against their heads.

Greeting and bonding

Scientists have observed that elephants quickly flatten their ears when greeting or forming bonds
with other elephants. This behaviour can be combined with other movements, such as lifting their
heads and occasionally touching the other elephant’s head with their trunks. This helps build trust
between elephants, deepening social bonds.

Aggression and intimidation

Elephants can also fold their ears, tucking the lower half of the ear underneath and backward,
creating a horizontal ridge in the centre. This has been shown to signal aggression to other

When elephants feel threatened, they spread their ears wide to appear larger and more
intimidating. This gesture, combined with rapid head shaking and a resounding trumpeting, can
create an imposing display. This combination of sensory stimuli creates an imposing scene, a warning
that resounds across the savannah and commands respect.

The importance of reading these visual cues is not confined to elephants alone. Safari guides often
learn to interpret elephant behaviour to keep their guests safe. This process is complex and lacks
consistent rules, but guides can recognize certain behaviours. For example, a mock charge, when an
elephant charges but stops short with ears spread wide and loud trumpeting, is a sign of
intimidation. Conversely, when an elephant flattens its ears against its head, it is charging with the
intent to cause harm. Differentiating between these behaviours can be a matter of life and death.
Understanding the precise meanings of elephant ear communication remains a challenge.

Elephants exhibit diverse personalities within their populations, contributing to nuanced interactions. What is
clear, however, is that elephant ears are essential for their survival, both for critical temperature
regulation and effective communication. These natural air conditioners provide elephants with a
cooling system that’s both ingenious and effective, a lifeline in the scorching landscapes they call and
their role in temperature control, these versatile ears also double as a silent language, expressing
emotions and forging bonds among these gentle giants.


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