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Elephants are large mammals of the family Elephantidae and the order Proboscidea. Traditionally, two species were known, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), although some evidence suggests that African bush elephants and African forest elephants are separate species (L. africana and L. cyclotis respectively). Elephants are scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
They are the only surviving proboscideans, although several extinct species have been identified, including the elephants’ close relatives, the mammoths. Elephants are the largest living terrestrial animals; male African elephants can reach a height of 4 m (13 ft) and weigh as much as 7,000 kg (15,000 lb). These animals have several distinctive features, including a long proboscis or trunk that they use for numerous purposes, particularly for grasping objects. The ear flaps are particularly large and help to control the temperature of their massive bodies. Their incisors grow into large tusks, which serve as tools for moving objects and digging, as well as weapons for fighting. African elephants have larger ears and concave backs while Asian elephants have smaller ears and a convex back.
Elephants are herbivores and they can be found in numerous habitats, including savannas, forests, deserts and marshes, and prefer to stay near water. Elephants are considered to be keystone species due to the impact they have on their environments. Other animals tend to keep their distance, and predators such as lions, tigers, hyenas and wild dogs usually target only the calves. Females or cows tend to live in family groups, which can consist of just one female with her calves or several related females with offspring.
The latter are led by the oldest cow, known as the matriarch. Elephants appear to have a fission-fusion society in which multiple family groups come together for socialising. Males or bulls leave their family groups when they reach puberty, and may live alone or with other males. Adult bulls mostly interact with family groups when looking for a mate and enter a state of increased testosterone and aggression known as musth, which helps them gain dominance and have reproductive success. Calves are the centre of attention in their family groups, and rely on their mothers for as long as three years. Elephants communicate by touch, sight, and sound and use infrasound and seismics for long-distance communication.
Elephants are intelligent, and have been compared to primates and cetaceans in this regard. They appear to have self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind. African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the Asian elephant is considered to be endangered. One of the biggest threats to elephant populations is the ivory trade, as the animals are poached for their ivory tusks. Other threats to wild elephants include habitat destruction and conflicts with local people. Elephants are used as working animals in both Asia and Africa and are employed for a numbers of tasks. In the past they were used as instruments of war, and are still put on display in zoos and circuses. Highly recognisable, elephants have played iconic roles in human cultures, and have been featured in art, folklore, religion, literature and popular culture.