Why is the largest land animal also the strangest-looking?
Meditation: Whether you think the elephant is the strangest looking land animal is a matter of taste, but you have to admit it is one of the stranger ones. I think there are several reasons why. One is just sheer numbers: Animals get rarer as they get bigger. Rarer not only in individuals, but also in species. There are millions of species of insects and other small animals. And jillions of members of each species. But bigger species are rarer and so are the members of each big species. If only because there are only two species of elephant, while for example there are dozens of species of say, deer/antelope/gazelle-type creatures, the elephant looks less “normal” because there are fewer examples of it.
But there is another reason: the elephant has had to make some particular adaptations to deal with its size. Let’s think about it this way first: What exactly is so strange about an elephant? The trunk for one. Also the legs like pillars. The nearly hairless skin. And the giant ears. Each of these is due to the elephant’s size, and to understand why we need to know something called the “cube-square” law, which says that bigger creatures have to be more “bulky.” If they weren’t, they would collapse under their own weight. If you made a grand-daddy long-legs the size of an elephant, its legs would break. I won’t go into why here, but I will another time.
So this is the reason that an elephant needs those pillar-like legs to stand on. And feet at the end of those legs that are just big pads to walk on. So the end of a pillar is pretty useless for picking things up with. Almost all creatures can make some use of their front feet to bring food to their mouths. But the elephant needs some other appendage. And most creatures can easily bend down to pick up food off the ground. But the massive elephant has a hard enough time even standing, so bending down is tough. So better to be able to reach down and bring food up to the mouth. So for both these reasons, the elephant needs a trunk. The trunk is a straw for drinking, can curl around things to pick them up, and also has little “fingers” on the end for picking up little things. It’s really useful, but now we can see why the elephant needs it so much.
The cube-square law also says that a bigger creature has less skin surface per pound, so it has less skin to lose heat. That’s great if you are living in the arctic, but elephants live in warm areas. So they need to lose heat, and lots of it. That’s why they have the big ears. The big flaps of skin hanging down the side of their head is way too shapeless to focus sound. It’s there to give more surface area for warm blood to circulate through to lose its heat. And for the same reason, the skin is hairless, so there is no insulation to trap excess heat. So the ears and skin act as big radiators to lose as much heat as possible on hot days.
So ears, skin, legs, and trunk are all adaptations to being so big. And by the way, if being big would be great for living in a cold place, where retaining heat would be a good thing, why don’t elephants live in the arctic or antarctic? Well, the problem is, the elephant’s size also makes it relatively slow and clumsy, so it would have a hard time catching animals to eat. That’s why it’s a vegetarian. They eat leaves from trees. But unfortunately, there aren’t many trees or plants of any kind growing in the arctic or antarctic. So elephants stay where the sun makes big leafy trees grow. Hey, elephants are smart, they have big brains, they stay where it’s sunny.
Fact: There are three living species of elephant: Asian elephant, African forest elephant, and African savannah elephant.