There are two main types of elephants in the world-the African and Asian. There are many differences between them, but how many do you know?
The main differences between African and Asian elephants are the size. African elephants are larger and heavier than Asian elephants and have much larger ears. The shoulder is the highest point of an African elephant, while in Asian elephants, it is the head. African elephants have two ‘fingers’ at the tip of their trunk, while Asian elephants only have one.
One of the easiest ways to know which species you are looking at is to know which continent you are in. However, if you are not in Asia or Africa, this guide will help you spot the difference.
There are three families of Asian elephants named after where they live. These are the mainland Asian elephant, Sumatran elephant, and the Sri Lankan elephant.
There are two families of African elephants known as forest elephants and bush or savannah elephants.
The largest elephant is the bush elephant. They can be found in many different habitats, from open plains and grasslands to marshes, mountains, and forests. The forest elephant can be found in the thick forests of central and western Africa.
|Larger ears||Smaller ears|
|Curved back||Flat back|
|Wrinkled skin||Smoother skin|
|Flat or convex head||Bulges in head|
|Belly slopes from front to back||Belly sags|
|Males and females have tusks||Males have tusks|
|The shoulder is the highest point||The top of the head is the highest point|
|Two fingers at the tip of trunk||One finger at the tip of trunk|
|The trunk has more rings and is less rigid||The trunk has less rings|
The African elephant is a heavy animal, with the savanna subspecies weighing between 4-7 tonnes and the forest elephant weighing between 2-4 tonnes. The bush elephant stands between 3-4 meters, with the forest elephant standing between 2-3 meters.
The Asian elephant is smaller in height and not as heavy. The largest Asian elephant is the Sri Lankan which stands up to 3.5 meters with a weight of up to 5 tonnes. The mainland subspecies stand up to 3m with a weight of up to 4.5 tonnes. The Sumatran subspecies is the smallest, weighing 4 tonnes and standing at 2.5m.
Although African and Asian elephants are fundamentally the same shape with four legs and a trunk, they have some significant differences.
African elephants have a concave back, while Asian elephants have a level or convex back. The belly is also different, with the stomach sloping down diagonally from front to back in the African elephant. In contrast, the Asian elephant is either level or sagging down in the middle.
The African elephant appears leaner than the Asian elephant, which is much more stocky and square.
The heads are also different as the Asian elephant has bulges and a dish shape to its head, while the African elephant has neither.
Size and shape of ears
The easiest way to tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant is the size and shape of their ears. African elephants have much larger ears. This is because they are closer to the equator as animals closer to the equator have larger appendices. By contrast, the woolly mammoth which lived near the North Pole had tiny ears for its size.
The bush subspecies of the African elephant have the largest ears, which are triangular or trapezoid shapes. The forest elephant has much rounder ears. African elephants exceed the height of the neck.
The Asian elephant’s ears are much smaller than the African species. Their ears follow the size of their bodies, with the Sri Lankan having the largest ears and the Sumatran subspecies having the smallest. The ears do not exceed the height of the neck.
The African elephant is characterized by its wrinkled skin. By contrast, the Asian elephant has much smoother skin. African elephants are darker than Asian elephants, with the forest subspecies lighter than the bush elephant. The bush elephant also has more hair spread around its body, although no elephants could be described as hairy.
The Sri Lankan subspecies are the darkest of the Asian elephants, with distinct patches of depigmentation on the ears, trunk, belly, and face. The mainland subspecies also have depigmented patches, although not as much as the Sri Lankan. Their colour is lighter but not as fair as the Sumatran subspecies.
While both males and female African elephants have tusks, this isn’t the same for Asian elephants. Female elephants’ tusks are vestigial and cannot usually be seen below the lip line, but male elephants of all three subspecies have tusks.
The bush elephant has curved, thick tusks larger than the females, while the forest elephant has a much more slender, straighter tusk.
There are differences between the feet of the African and Asian elephants. However, this is not always the best way to tell the difference between an African and Asian elephant due to the amount of nail-like structures.
African elephants have four or five nails on their forefeet compared to the 5 of an Asian elephant, while on the hind feet, African elephants have 3,4, or 5 nails, while Asian elephants have 4 or 5. This makes it difficult to tell the difference based solely on the number of nail-like structures.
Although I wouldn’t expect most people to be able to tell the difference by looking at them, I wanted to note that both the bush elephant and forest elephant have 21 pairs of ribs. The Sri Lankan elephant only has 19 pairs, while both the mainland and the Sumatran subspecies have 20 pairs of ribs.