Elephants are one of the most stunning mammals on Earth. Known for their keen memory and sociable behavior, these gentle giants are among the world’s most charismatic species.
But how much do you actually know about the world’s elephants?
In this article, we introduce you to the 6 types of elephants that currently roam the planet. We’ll also discuss the many extinct types of elephants and offer up some superb fun facts to help you learn more about these fascinating creatures.
List of the 6 Types of Elephants
These days, elephants are often informally categorized as African elephants and Asian elephants. Within the African elephants, there are 2 living species, while the Asian elephants are subdivided into 4 living subspecies.
There are also 32 types of extinct elephant species and 2 extinct elephant genera, all of which roamed the Earth at different times in the past.
In this section, we’ll do a deep dive into the exciting world of pachyderms and clue you into all the different types of elephants—both living and extinct—so you can impress your friends with your newfound knowledge.
Let’s get to it!
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1. Subtribe Loxodontina (African Elephants)
First up on our list is the subtribe Loxodontina. There’s only 1 genus in this subtribe called Loxodonta, which is the genus that includes all the African elephants.
Within this genus, there are currently 2 extant (i.e., living) species of elephants as well as 1 extinct (i.e., dead) species of elephant. Here’s what you need to know:
1.1 African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana africana)
The African bush elephant (also known as the African savanna elephant) is the world’s largest land mammal. With an average adult height of up to 24 feet (7.3 m) and a maximum weight of about 11 tons (10,000 kg), the African bush elephant is one hefty mammal.
It is one of the most adaptable elephants in the world as it inhabits a wide range of different environments, from deserts to savannas. The African bush elephant can be found in the majority of countries in Africa, which makes it one of the most widely dispersed elephant species on the planet.
Interestingly, the African bush elephant is known to live up to 70 years, which places it among the longest-lived mammals. To support its long lifespan, these elephants have to eat about 350 lbs (159 kg) of fruits, bark, grass, and leaves each day!
Most female and juvenile African bush elephants live in herds that are organized as a matriarchal system. This means that they are led by an elder female that helps direct the group from place to place.
All adult African bush elephants have visible tusks, which, unfortunately, has made them a target for poachers over the years. The species is currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
1.2 North African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaonensis)
The North African bush elephant, (also called the Carthaginian elephant) is an extinct subspecies of the African bush elephant, however, some researchers consider it to be an independent species.
This elephant was believed to live almost exclusively to the north of the Sahara desert, though its range may have extended down to the coast of modern-day Eritrea. Unlike the extant subspecies of elephants that exist today, the North African bush elephant was not particularly tall with an average height of just around 8 feet (2.5 m).
The North African bush elephant was famously used by Carthage during their battles in the Punic Wars against the Roman Republic. In fact, these were the elephants that Hannibal used to cross the Alps and the Pyrenees to invade what is now Italy.
By the height of the Roman Empire, however, the North African bush elephant was completely wiped out. It was believed that the elephants were used for entertainment in Ancient Rome as part of their circus games. Many thousands of elephants were killed during these games, eventually leading to the species’ demise.
1.3 African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)
The second of 2 living species of African elephant, the African forest elephant is the smaller cousin of the African bush elephant. These elephants are found in central and western Africa’s rainforests, particularly in the Congo Basin.
Although they’re both found on the continent of Africa, the African forest elephant and the African bush elephant are somewhat easy to distinguish. First and foremost, the African forest elephant is the smaller of the two, with an average adult height of around 10 feet (3 m) and an average weight of about 5 tons (4,500 kg).
Furthermore, the African forest elephant has straight tusks that more or less point downward. In fact, some of the largest adult males have tusks that can almost reach the ground.
Another distinguishing characteristic of this species is that it has 5 toenails on each front foot and 4 toenails on each of its rear feet. Like the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant can also live to be about 60 to 70 years old.
However, the African forest elephant has been heavily poached over the centuries. It’s estimated that some 60% of all of these beautiful creatures have been poached in the last decade and the species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
2. Subtribe Elephantia
The subtribe Elephantia includes both the Eurasian elephants and a genus of elephants called mammoths. Currently, there is only 1 living species of elephants in the subtribe Elephantia and this species is divided up into either 3 or 4 geographically distinct subspecies.
2.1 Genus Elephas (Eurasian Elephants)
The genus Elephas is home to the only living species of elephants in the subtribe Elephantia: Elephas maximus.
This species is more commonly referred to as the Asian elephant and it can be divided up into 4 subspecies. However, some scientists insist that the Borneo elephant is not its own subspecies, so you may hear people say that there are only 3 subspecies of Asian elephants.
2.1.1 Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus)
The Indian elephant, as the name suggests, is found in India and other parts of south-central Asia. Its natural range also includes parts of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Pakistan, but it is regionally extinct from Pakistan.
When compared to its African bush elephant cousins, the Indian elephant is substantially smaller with an average weight of around 5 tons (4,500 kg) and a height of about 11 feet (3.3 m). It’s known to eat for about 19 hours a day as it grazes for grasses, leaves, roots, and tree bark.
The Indian elephant naturally inhabits tropical and subtropical forests as well as some grasslands. However, extensive habitat fragmentation and poaching have led the Indian elephant to become endangered.
Interestingly, only male Indian elephants have tusks, so poaching of these animals has greatly skewed the gender composition of the Indian elephant population. There are currently only about 20,000 to 25,000 of these elephants left in the wild.
2.1.2 Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)
As its name suggests, the Sri Lankan elephant is found only on the island of Sri Lanka. It is a recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant, having first been described as a separate subspecies by Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century.
For the most part, the Sri Lankan elephant is found in the drier parts of the island of Sri Lanka. It tends to be smaller than both species of African elephant with an average height of about 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 m). These elephants also weigh around 3.5 tons (3,100 kg).
Most female and juvenile Sri Lankan elephants live in herds of about 12 to 20 individuals with an elder female as the matriarch. Some male Sri Lankan elephants also have tusks, but this is actually fairly uncommon.
Unfortunately, Sri Lankan elephants are considered to be an endangered species. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that the population has declined by about 50% over the last century. Approximately 35% of the elephant’s habitat is protected, but the subspecies is still threatened by severe habitat loss and fragmentation.
2.1.3 Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus)
The Sumatran elephant is a rare subspecies of Asian elephant that’s found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. It is also one of the smaller elephants, with an average height of just 7 feet (2.1 m) and an average weight of around 5 tons (4,500 kg).
These beautiful elephants were once fairly widespread on Sumatra. However, they are now one of the most threatened subspecies of elephants, with the IUCN classifying them as critically endangered.
As of 2021, there are only about 2,500 Sumatran elephants left. The vast majority of their range is outside of protected habitat areas, which has led to a serious decline in their population. Much of the decline in the Sumatran elephant populations is due to habitat loss, though poaching, particularly for ivory and to protect palm oil plantations, is a major cause of their decline.
2.1.4 Borneo Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis)
The final subspecies of Asian elephant, the Borneo elephant (Bornean elephant or Borneo pygmy elephant) is a source of some controversy. While some researchers insist that it is a separate subspecies found only on Borneo, others contend that it is not.
Regardless, despite the once-common belief that the animals were introduced to the island in the seventeenth century by the then Sultan of Sulu, DNA testing indicates that the elephants may have been isolated on the island much earlier. In fact, DNA testing shows that the Borno elephant has been isolated from the mainland population of Asian elephants for at least 300,000 years.
These days, the Borneo elephant is known for being one of the smallest elephants on Earth. It is also considered to be one of the most endangered elephant species with only about 1,500 individuals remaining.
2.1.5 Extinct Species in the Genus Elephas
In addition to the 3 or 4 living subspecies of the genus Elephas, there are also a number of extinct species. Most of these species lived in Eurasia, though some lived in Africa and it’s believed that some even lived in parts of South and Central America.
Here are some of the many extinct species in the genus Elephas:
- Elephas maximus rubridens (Chinese elephant)
- Elephas maximus asurus (Syrian elephant)
- Elephas beyeri
- Elephas celebensis (Sulawesi dwarf elephant)
- Elephas hysudricus
- Elephas iolensis
- Elephas planifrons (Southern mammoth)
- Elephas platycephalus
- Elephas recki
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus (Straight-tusked elephant)
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) creticus
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) creutzburgi
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) chaniensis
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) cypriotes (Cyprus dwarf elephant)
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) ekorensis
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) falconeri (Maltese pygmy elephant)
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) mnaidriensis
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) melitensis
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) namadicus (Asian straight-tusked elephant)
- Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) naumanni (Naumann’s elephant)
2.2 Genus Mammuthus (Mammoths)
The genus Mammuthus is an extinct genus that contains 9 extinct species of what we commonly call mammoths. These animals were aesthetically quite similar to modern elephants, though they tended to be larger and much more fur-covered than their contemporary cousins.
The 9 known species within this genus include:
- Mammuthus africanavus (African mammoth)
- Mammuthus columbi (Columbian mammoth)
- Mammuthus exilis (Pygmy mammoth)
- Mammuthus imperator (American mammoth)
- Mammuthus lamarmorae (Sardinian dwarf mammoth)
- Mammuthus meridionalis (Southern mammoth)
- Mammuthus primigenius (Wooly mammoth)
- Mammuthus subplanifrons (South African mammoth)
- Mammuthus armeniacus (Steppe mammoth)
It’s believed that mammoths went extinct sometime toward the end of the last major glaciation, about 18,000 years ago. Some were able to make their way into North America across the Bering Strait land bridge, though most were found in Africa and Eurasia.
These days, you can find mammoth skeletons and remains in a number of museums around the world.
3. Other Extinct Elephant Species
In addition to all of the living and extinct elephant species listed above, there are also a number of other extinct elephant genera and species that don’t quite fit in either the subtribe Loxodontina or the subtribe Elephantia.
Two species, Primelephas gomphotheroides and Primelephas korotorensis, are believed to have existed during the Pliocene and Miocene. They are believed to have greatly resembled modern elephants, though they had 4 tusks, which is quite different from their contemporary relatives.
The other extinct elephant species were members of the genus Stegotetrabelodon and Stegodibelodon. Not too much is known about these species, though it’s believed that they lived during the Miocene and Pliocene, too, in both Africa and Eurasia.
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Despite the fact that there are currently only 6 types of elephants (including species and subspecies) wandering the Earth, the classification system for elephants is fairly complex.
All elephants are part of the kingdom Animalia and the phylum Chordata, which means that they are animals with developed nerve cords, namely, a spinal cord. Furthermore, elephants are located within the class Mammalia (mammals) and within the order Proboscidea.
Elephants are actually the only living members in the order Proboscidea. Within that order, they are all classified in the family Elephantidae.
That being said, the vast majority of elephant genera and species are extinct. There are currently only two genera, Elephas and Loxodonta, that have living species.
Depending on who you ask, however, you’ll often see elephants classified into subtribes. The Loxodonta genus is the only genus within the subtribe Loxodontina. Meanwhile, the Elephas genus is classified in the subtribe Elephantina alongside the genera Mammuthus, Stegotetrabelodon, and Stegodibelodon.
While most of the species in a given genus are found in geographically similar areas, elephants, like all other species, are classified based on genetic similarities. So, any decisions on whether to separate or combine species are based on DNA testing.
Elephants Conservation Status
Although elephants are one of the most easily recognizable and charismatic animal species on the planet, all living elephant species are either classed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Indeed, both Asian and African elephants are at risk of extinction. Throughout the elephant’s range, its greatest threats include habitat loss and poaching. Poaching for the illegal ivory trade remains the major threat in Africa while habitat loss remains the major threat in Asia.
Despite the sometimes grim statistics about elephant conservation around the world, there is hope for the elephant’s survival.
Recent bans on domestic and international ivory trade have greatly curtailed the demand for ivory, which has helped, to some degree, lessen the impact of poaching. Greater protections for elephants, particularly in Africa, as well as work to conserve vital elephant habitat, have gone a long way to help elephant species on both continents.
Elephant Fun Facts
Fancy yourself as an elephant fanatic? Here are some of the best elephant fun facts that you ought to know:
1|Elephant Calves Can Stand Up With 20 Minutes Of Birth
As incredible as it may sound, baby elephants are able to stand upright on their own within about 20 minutes of taking their first breath. Yep, while we humans can barely hold our heads upright for the first 6 months of our lives, baby elephants are already running through the savanna like old pros before they see their first sunset. How’s that for impressive?
2|Elephant Tusks Are Actually Teeth
Interestingly enough, an elephant’s tusks are not horns in animals, they’re teeth! In fact, ivory (the material in elephant tusks) is made from dentine, which is one of the main tissues found in human teeth. An elephant’s tusk is even wrapped in enamel, just like our teeth!
Now, if you’re wondering why an elephant has these massive teeth, you’re not alone. However, it’s believed that elephant tusks evolved to allow elephants to dig holes, gather food, strip bark from trees, and lift objects. They’re also used to some degree for self-defense.
Oh, and elephants tend to be either “right tusked” or “left tusked,” just like how we humans are usually either right-handed or left-handed. You can often tell whether or not an elephant has a preferred tusk that they use for various tasks by checking to see which one is more worn down. Who would’ve known?
3|Want To Identify An Elephant Species? Check Out Its Ears
Although there are plenty of unique characteristics between all the various species and subspecies of elephants, you can use a fairly simple trick to tell if an individual is either an Asian or an African elephant.
Of course, if you happen to be in a country in Africa, you can be pretty certain that you’re looking at an African elephant. The same is true if you’re in any country in Asia.
However, if you’re just viewing a photo of an elephant, you’ll simply need to look at the elephant’s ears.
The old saying goes that African elephants have much larger ears that somewhat resemble the shape of the continent of Africa. Meanwhile, Asian elephants have small ears that tend to be quite round. It’s as simple as that!
4|An Elephant’s Trunk Can Contain Around 2 Gallons Of Water
An elephant’s trunk is a pretty amazing appendage. Not only do elephants have about 150,000 different muscle units in their trunk, but that trunk can also be used to suck up 2 gallons (8 liters) of water at once!
If that wasn’t impressive enough, wait until you hear this: An elephant’s trunk is also one of the most sensitive and dexterous appendages of any mammal.
Some elephants have been seen picking up a single peanut, blowing the shell away, and eating the peanut, all with just their tusk! It would take most of us humans both hands to be able to accomplish that.
Oh, and elephants can even use their trunk as a sort of snorkel while swimming. How cute!
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Here are our answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about elephants:
What Kind Of Animal Is An Elephant?
An elephant is a mammal due to the fact that it has fur, mammary glands, and because it gives birth to live young. All elephants are classified as part of the family Elephantidae, which is within the order Proboscidea of the class Mammalia.
How Much Do Elephants Weight?
Elephants vary in weight from around 2 tons (1,800 kg) to 11 tons (10,000 kg). The largest elephants are adult male African bush elephants while the Borneo elephant (also called the Borneo pygmy elephant) is the smallest with an average weight of about 2.8 tons (2,500 kg).
How Long Do Elephants live?
Elephants are very long-lived mammals with a maximum lifespan of around 70 years in the wild. While some Asian elephants won’t live more than about 50 years, African bush elephants and African forest elephants are known to live to 60 to 70 years.
Interestingly, however, captive elephants in zoos tend to live much shorter lives than their free-roaming counterparts. In fact, the median lifespan for an African elephant in captivity is about 17 to 20 years, which is less than one-third of the life expectancy of a wild elephant.
What Do Elephants Eat?
Elephants are herbivores, so they stick to a plant-based diet. Most elephants prefer to snack on things like flowers, leaves, grasses, fruits, shrubs, and bark, though you can also see them foraging for roots in tough times.
Due to their very large size, elephants have to eat anywhere from 200 to 600 lbs (90 to 270 kg) of food per day. They’ll also drink about 50 gallons (190 liters) of water per day!
Which Animals Are Pachyderms?
Although the term pachyderm is often used to refer to elephants, this term can actually be used to discuss a wide range of other animals. In fact, pachydermata is a now-obsolete order of animals that included all non-ruminant mammals with hooves. This included elephants, rhinoceroses, tapirs, and even horses.