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How Do Elephants Use Adaptations for Getting Their Food?

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As the largest land mammal, elephants hold a prestigious place among other animals. As herbivores, they're not predators, so they can't be considered at the top of the food chain, but adult elephants have no natural predators except humans. Sustaining their large bodies on nothing but plant matter means they must use every adaptation at their disposal to keep themselves adequately fed.


If his size isn't enough, an elephant's trunk makes him instantly distinguishable from all other mammals. The long appendage is flexible and can grab small objects, making it indispensable when the elephant seeks food. His trunk can wrap around small twigs and branches to break them off and bring them to his mouth. The trunk adds reach to his already great height, allowing him to reach branches other herbivores can't. He also grabs tall grasses with his trunk, pulls them out of the ground and brings them up to eat, and holds larger branches still while he munches on them.


Tusks serve an essential function in ensuring an elephant gets the proper nutrients. He uses his tusks to dig into the ground to find salt deposits and sometimes water, when not readily available. He scrapes the bark off trees with his tusks, exposing softer, tastier wood underneath -- although he can pick up the bark with his trunk and eat it too. When he finds a branch too large to eat whole, his tusks help strip the wood into manageable pieces.


The large teeth of an elephant are uniquely suited to plowing through huge amounts of vegetation each day. An elephant typically has four molars, each about the size of a brick. They're strong enough to break down tough wood, and each tooth is replaced several times during his lifetime. Unlike humans, who have only two set of teeth, elephants have six sets. These teeth also work to clean bark off a branch as it's held and turned by his trunk.

Other Adaptations

An elephant's large feet are good for more than walking. His short neck makes it complicated to get a good grip on low-lying food with his trunk, but kicking the dirt helps. When he kicks under short grass with his heavy foot and strong toenails, the elephant unearths the grass so his trunk can pick it up easily. He also has an amazingly sensitive sense of smell, allowing him to find food and water from miles away. He uses seven olfactory turbinals to distinguish smells and determine direction and distance.