The skin of the elephants

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Are elephants really "thick skinned"?

The expression of elephants being pachyderms is correct only in part. On vulnerable spots like the trunk embouchure, legs and back, skin can in fact be 2.5 to 3 cms thick, but behind the ears, by the eye, on the abdomen, chest and shoulders it is as thin as paper. People who touch an elephant´s skin for the first time often describe it as like an eraser.


Why do elephants need a thick skin?

Elephants need a thick skin to hold together their mass respectively their inner pressure. This can be compared with buying bread. If 1 kg of bread is bought, it is wrapped in tissue-paper. If 20 kgs of bread are bought, a thick and strong paper bag is needed to hold together the bread parcel.

Can a veterinarian cut the skin open?

Because of the inner pressure it also is nearly impossible to help with a caesarean section at an elephant´s birth. The entrails would flow out and could hardly be pushed back into the abdomen. What can be done is a perineal section between anus and vagina, but this operation is very risky as well and is used only in the most extreme case to save the elephant mother´s life. For example, the cut cannot be sewed up using threads, but has to be fixed with wire.

Is the skin sensitive?

The elephant´s skin is despite of its thickness a very sensititve system and has a rich nerve providing. An elephant notices every fly landing on him!

Elephant skin

Why are some elephants almost "white"?

The difference between African and Asian elephants can be seen in the skin structure as well. Asian elephants have a finer skin than their African relatives.
Especially Asian Elephants often do not have colour on their skin, most conspiciously on their ears and forehead. These "white" spots are the contrary of our freckles. In most cases, this "depigmentation" has a genetic reason. Young elephants mostly are wholly "grey". The first white spots come with the age. Wholly white elephants (albinos) are rare and seen as holy.

White elephant Druk

Do elephants also have hair?

The elephants skin is full of hairs. This can be seen very well especially on young elephants. But also older animals often have their back full of thick hairs. The answer to the public´s question of what the hairs are for, our reply mostly is: "In order that dirt, sand and mud don´t fall of the back well and that we have to clean more".

African elephants have less hairs than their Asian relatives. The thickest elephant hairs are located at the tip of the tail. Bracelets and rings are often made out of this hairs.

Elephant hairs

Do elephants sweat?

Because the elephant´s skin does not have perspiratory glands, the elephants have to cool themselves in another way.
They have great ears working like coolers. Behind the ears, under the fine skin, run thousands of very fine veins. When the elephants flutter with the ears, the draught cools the capillary vessel blood and thus the body. This has the same effect as when a dog hackles or when we, in great heat, hold our wrists in cold water. Fluttering with the ears is very efficient for elephants.

elephant ear

What if elephants had sweat glands after all?

If the elephant would have perspiratory glands, his skin would mostly be bathed in perspiration because an elephant weighing about 2000 kgs has a skin surface of roughly 112000 cm². A rat weighing 300 grams has a body surface of 300 cm². This means that in comparison with his weight, an elephant only has 1/18 of a rat´s body surface. Smaller creatures can therefore give away their body heat better than elephants and perspire much less.

How are the skin and diet related?

Elephants take food containing less energy than smaller creatures or humans do for not feeling too hot all the time. This is a reason why elephants grow so tall with a vegetable diet. If they would eat meat, fat and sugar, they could not anymore equalize their body temperature independent of the air temperature and so could not survive anymore.

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