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Five interesting facts about an elephant’s skin

For the interested, there is plenty that can be considered when we look at the earth’s largest land mammal. All of this earth’s plant and animal life have their own unique adaptive qualities that make the study of them interesting. The elephant, owing perhaps to its breath-taking size and its unique bodily design, draws a lot of interest.

When our scrutinising eye lands on the elephant, we often find ourselves interested in the ‘what for’s and ‘how come’s relating to the creature’s size and shape. That’s the reason one would have no difficulty in finding an ‘Interesting facts’ article on the elephant’s trunk or its tusks.

However, somewhat overlooked in our digest of elephant facts articles is information relating to its largest organ. So, for your reading pleasure, here you go: 5 interesting facts about an elephant’s skin.

Elephant skin fact no. 1: An elephant’s skin can weigh up to 900 kg

With 2.5 cm thick skin, wrinkling and folding its way around a frame that can be 13 feet (nearly 4 meters) at the shoulder and encasing bodily mechanics that can weigh up to 7 tonnes, this shouldn’t surprise. This tough membrane has to withstand the hardships of savannah living whilst also keeping all that it has inside compact and safe.

Elephant skin fact no. 2: An elephant’s skin, though tough and weathered, has interesting sensitivities

Perhaps more surprising than the fact that an elephant’s skin can weigh up 900kg is the fact that it is, actually, quite sensitive.

Elephant are subject to sunburn just like most other hairless mammals. What’s more, they have no natural, self-generating method of fighting its effects. Whereas hippos secrete a sunscreening substance, colloquially called ‘hippo sweat’, which scatters ultraviolet light, elephant are forced to cover themselves in mud to protect from the sun.

In the above photograph – of the late, great Lugard -, you can see the application of mud as sunscreen in action.

With young elephant, observers might witness a mother or another herd adult standing above young in order to shade the creature from the sun.  

Elephant are also sensitive to the stings of insects. Particularly sensitive are the areas of skin that surround an elephant’s eyes and mouth, behind its ears and on the inside of its trunk.

This fact has actually proven itself fruitful in the modern elephant conservationist’s drive to reduce human-elephant conflict. With increasingly fragmented rangelands, and greater numbers of humans turning to arable farming every day in Africa, the pressure points in the age-old saga of human-elephant interaction are becoming more and more obvious.

Elephant conservationists spend a great deal of their time and resources in developing ways we can limit the impact of and reduce the frequency with which elephant and humans conflict.

One such line of consideration, led by Dr. Lucy King, brought about the beehive fence initiative. An elephant can eat a farmer’s entire harvest in one day, all the while trampling a considerable amount more.

Stringing beehives along elevated fences, set to triggering a swarm when elephant knock the fences, has been found to deter elephant.

In a 2017 study, elephants were deterred by beehive fences 80% of the time. Interviewed farmers said it was a much more effective deterrent than those they had used before.

A researcher interviewing farmers in Sagalla, Kenya, found that 61% of interviewees said the bees were a “more effective” deterrent than thorn bush barriers, beating metal with a blunt object, burning rubber tyres for the acrid smoke and the shining of torch lights into an elephant’s eyes.

Elephant skin fact no. 3: Elephant do not sweat

Sweating is obviously an essential tool in thermoregulation. In the stead of this evolutionary adaptation, microscopic analysis of elephant skin has found the existence of micrometre-wide crevices embedded in an elephant’s skin.

Mirroring the larger, more obvious folds we see when we look at an elephant with the naked eye, these microscopic creases make an elephant’s skin capable of even more water retention.

When elephant wallow in mud baths or ponds, these crevices fill with water and mud. This retained material keeps the creatures cool for longer.

Furthermore, it has been found, through the study of heat exchange from an elephant’s skin, that in the heat, and despite the fact that an elephant has no sweat glands, the skin becomes more permeable and capable of heat diffusion. Little is known of how exactly this is done without the sweat glands but that it is done has been proven.

Elephant skin fact no. 4: It lacks sebaceous glands

Sebaceous glands are the microscopic glands that surround many mammals’ hair follicles. They produce sebum, an oily substance that has differing qualities in different creatures.

For most animals, the production of sebum lubricates the skin, keeping it supple and flexible. Elephant skin, without this quality, must find other ways to ensure that it does not split under pressure.

This is the reason why an elephant’s skin looks so loose and baggy. The extra space allows for internal movement without the damage one might expect from unsupple skin. This is also the reason why around joints, an elephant’s skin is even more loosely hanging.

Elephant skin fact no. 5: The movement of skin on an elephant’s trunk is being used to inform robotics engineers

Researchers at the Georgia Institute for Technology have been studying the movement of the skin along an elephant’s trunk in a bid to better understand how they can build reach into robots.

Studiers found that, alongside the elephant’s trunk muscles, the way the skin is manipulated is key to understanding this unique pattern of movement. What they have found is that the folds of an elephant’s skin opens up telescopically, like the stem of an umbrella, or a telescope.

This is unlike how other boneless, muscle appendages move. If this design can be better understood and then applied to soft robotics, we may well be able to create some incredibly useful, reaching creations.


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