African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the largest land mammals on Earth. Two subspecies of these impressive animals roam the sub-Saharan regions of Africa. Savanna elephants inhabit Africa's southern and eastern regions, while forest elephants occupy the central and western regions of the continent. African elephants exhibit distinct sexual dimorphism, that is, there are noticeable differences between males and females of the species.
Male African elephants, or bulls, are significantly larger than females. Mature males reach heights between 12 and 14 feet at the shoulder, and weigh from 12,000 to 14,000 pounds. Females, or cows, reach heights between 9 and 13 feet and weigh from 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. Both genders grow ivory tusks, which are actually elongated incisor teeth. However, the male's tusks are longer and heavier, weighing between 110 and 175 pounds each. Females' tusks weigh approximately 40 pounds each.
According to the National Elephant Center, African elephants live in matriarchal communities. Females are very social, typically living together in the same herd for their whole lives. The herd is led by the oldest female, or matriarch, and consists of closely related females and their offspring. All mature females cooperate together in raising elephant calves. Male elephants lead solitary lives. When they are close to sexual maturity, they leave the matriarchal herd. Although they may associate with other males, or bachelor groups, male elephants spend approximately 95 percent of their lives alone.
Female African elephants do not compete with each other for status or mates. Males, however, begin engaging in dominance behavior as soon as they reach sexual maturity. The level of dominance a male achieves is related directly to his power and size. In early adulthood, males establish their hierarchical status among other males in the area by assessing each others' strength and skills through sparring and play fighting. By the time they reach 25 years of age, they spend most of their time eating and competing for mates.
The Musth Period
According to SeaWorld.org, African elephants have a musth gland on each side of their heads. Once per year, they enter into a musth period. During the musth period, the glands secrete a dark, oily, musky substance. Among females it is believed that musth secretion simply serves to consolidate the herd. The musth period for males, however, is entirely different. During this time males are focused on raising their status for the purpose of finding willing female mates. Their musth period is characterized by unpredictable behavior, loud vocalizations, and highly elevated levels of competitiveness and the pursuit of dominance.
Yvette Sajem has been a professional writer since 1995. Her work includes greeting cards and two children's books. A lifelong animal advocate, she is active in animal rescue and transport, and is particularly partial to senior and special needs animals.