Did you know that an African elephant’s ears are up to 1/6 the size of their entire body surface? No wonder that their ears, along with their amazing trunk, are their signature physical feature. Elephants have the ability to hear sounds at lower frequencies than many other mammals, including humans. Able to emit low rumblings, they can communicate with each other over great distances. But that has more to do with their head size and inner ear workings than the external ear’s size.
The ears play a more critical role in an elephant’s survival — regulating body temperature. African and Asian elephants occupy some of the hottest habitats in the world. If you look closely at an elephant’s ears, particularly on the back side, you will see a distinct network of blood vessels. As the ears are flapped or sprayed with water (compliments of the trunk), blood flowing through the ears is cooled and in turn cools the rest of the body as it flows throughout the elephant’s system. Scientists have determined that under normal conditions, ear-flapping is sufficient for 100% of the animal’s heat-loss requirements. Asian elephants, who tend to live in forested areas rather than the savannah, have smaller ears as they are less exposed to the sun and, theoretically, less hot.
As an added bonus, each ear is distinct enough to help people who study elephants identify individuals. Over an elephant’s lifetime, the edges of the ear accumulate tatters and tears, scars and wounds — all from everyday life in the bush. In addition to these natural “piercings,” the pattern of the blood veins prominent in their ears is as unique to each elephant as fingerprints are to humans. These distinguishing features facilitate our ability to study and better understand individual behavior. So here’s to the ears!