Elephants are one of the most instantly recognisable animals on the planet. It’d be hard to miss these giant creatures with their distinctive trunks, tusks and of course huge ears. African elephants can grow to be 13 feet tall and their ears can measure in at a whopping 5 foot! (that’s almost as high as a full grown adult human).
But why do elephants have such big ears? You might think they must have excellent hearing along with their famous memory, but the real answer is that elephant’s ears help them to stay cool. Elephants typically live in hot climates, so it’s very important they have a way of lowering their body temperature quickly.
Unlike humans elephants don’t have sweat glands, so they rely on other methods to cool down when they get too hot, this is where their big ears come into play.
Elephant’s giant ears are full of small blood vessels and as their blood close to the skin it loses heat very quickly. This means when higher temperature blood from within the elephant’s big body flows out to the ears it drops in temperature before being recirculated, lowering the elephants overall body temperature. Elephants are very smart and they’ll even spray their ears with water to help speed up the cooling process.
This isn’t the massive ears only use when it comes to keeping cool. Elephants also use their big ears as large fans, flapping them back and forth to help circulate area the air around them, speeding up the cooling process even further.
This ingenious combo can help the elephant to lower its body temperature by 9 whole degrees Fahrenheit (or 5 degrees Celsius)!
How do we know this is what elephant’s ears are for? One way you can tell is by looking at the difference between African and Asian elephants. Asian elephants have smaller ears than their African cousins, only measuring in at a few feet across. This is because the Asian elephant finds its home in the shady and slightly cooler rain forests of Asia, whereas African elephants live in sub-Saharan Africa where they are much more exposed to the sun and extremely high temperatures.
Another piece of evidence is the difference between modern day elephants and their prehistoric relatives the wooly mammoths. Wooly mammoths lived in much colder climates than today’s elephants and they had thick fur to help them cope with the chilly weather. Wooly mammoths also had much smaller ears, despite sharing the elephant’s other characteristics, tusks and a long trunk. This suggests that elephants must need their big ears for something important, and given the difference in their habitats, temperature seems the most likely reason.
But what does an elephant do when even big ears can’t save them from the heat? Somewhat surprisingly for their size, elephants are confident swimmers and will happily retreat to the water or to rolling around in mud when it all gets too much.
So there you have it, not only are giant ears part of the elephant’s signature look, they also play a vital role in keeping these gentle giants cool in the heat of the day.