14 elephant facts you can use to impress people at parties (if they're into elephants).
Let's talk elephants – we all know elephants, right? Big, gray, some in Africa and some in Asia. We all know elephants. There are a ton of elephant facts out there.
But what I'm about to tell you are no ordinary elephant facts. These elephant facts are totally bananas. 14 of them. 14 totally bananas elephant facts.
Are you ready?
1. Ancient elephant relatives were weirdos.
There are currently two species of elephant — the Asian and the African elephant — but they have a long family tree. A long, very weird family tree. In addition to the woolly mammoth and mastodon, there were strange elephant-platypus-looking hybrids like the platybelodon, with its shovel-like jaws, or deinotherium, a species with tusks that pointed backward. Backward!
2. Speaking of weird relatives, the Mediterranean used to be home to a species of miniature elephants.
Called dwarf elephants, these guys were found on islands such as Crete and Sicily.
3. A white elephant is a real thing.
If you've ever received an automatic egg cooker or a leg lamp at an office party, you're probably familiar with the term "white elephant" — a gift you don't want but can't refuse. But did you know a white elephant is a real animal?
A white elephant is another name for a very pale, often albino, elephant. In some southeast Asian countries like Thailand and India, a white elephant is a sign of good luck.
So what do they have to do with stuff from SkyMall magazine?
Well, according to legend, the King of Thailand would occasionally give one of his sacred white elephants to a political enemy of his. The enemy couldn't exactly turn down a gift from the king, and it was considered impolite to use a sacred animal as a glorified pack mule, so they just had to keep it, leaving the elephant to eat the poor sap out of house and home. That's the legend anyway.
4. And, actually, a white elephant isn't actually white.
An albino elephant is actually kind of reddish-brown or pinkish. Both Indian and African elephants can be albinos.
5. Hannibal really did march elephants over the Alps.
In 218 B.C., a Carthaginian general named Hannibal decided to invade Roman Italy. And Hannibal wanted to bring his famous war elephants. The problem? He was in Spain, with thousands of miles and multiple mountain ranges between him and Rome.
So what did he do? He marched his entire army including — yes — his elephants, right over the Alps. Talk about dedication.
Though maybe he would have had more luck trying to swim across because:
6. Elephants are great in the water...
Though they might not look it, elephants are practically synchronized swimmers. An elephant's trunk can even be used like a snorkel, which is just brilliant.
7. ...but they're not so great on the basketball court.
Elephants can't jump. They're just too big and weigh too much. Although, really, if we're still talking basketball, that might not matter so much considering they can be 11 feet tall!
8. They live in dusty habitats but still keep their homes in order.
Elephants help keep their homes healthy. They pull down trees and bushes, which helps the grass grow. They dig up salt licks and water holes that other animals need to survive. Even their poop is important! And because elephants are so important, they have a special designation: a keystone species. Like how a keystone keeps an arch intact, keystone species keep their environment intact.
9. Elephants hate bees.
Elephants will sometimes raid people's crops. And it turns out, it's really hard to design a fence that'll stop a 12,000-pound animal. Wood? Smash. Stone? Smash. Electric? Smash smash smash. Unfortunately, this drives many poor farmers to use guns or other weapons to try to drive the elephants away.
But we may have found a secret weapon to deter elephants: bees. Thousands and thousands of bees. Elephants hate bees. They'll even run away from just the sound of them! A nonprofit known as The Elephants and Bees Project is helping farmers build bee fences around their property. The end result is safer crops, safer farmers, and safer elephants.
10. And they can use mirrors.
The mirror test is a classic experiment to see if an animal is self-aware. Most animals don't understand that a mirror is a reflection of themselves. This is why your cat sometimes freaks out when it sees its own reflection: It thinks it's another cat. But some animals, including humans, great apes, dolphins, and — yes — elephants can recognize that the handsome hunk in the mirror is their own reflection.
11. Elephants can hear through their feet.
Elephants can make a bunch of different sounds, including noises so deep that human ears can't hear them. But elephants can also communicate by ground stomps, which send vibrations through the ground. Other elephants then pick up these vibrations through pressure-sensitive nerves in their feet.
12. Elephants can be right-tusked or left-tusked.
Elephant tusks are modified incisors — essentially giant buck teeth — and can be used as weapons, shovels, and ornaments. And just like humans are right-handed or left-handed, elephants develop a certain preference for using one tusk or the other.
13. But those tusks can be a huge liability.
There may have once been as many as 5 million African elephants, but today there are just under half a million. One of the big drivers of this population decline has been poaching — people shooting and killing elephants just for their ivory.
Though many nations have now outlawed ivory sales, poaching is still estimated to kill 30,000-50,000 elephants a year.
14. In fact, poaching might actually be pushing elephants to evolve not to have tusks altogether.
Because poachers are targeting and killing elephants with big, impressive tusks, this may actually end up pushing future elephant generations to have smaller tusks or no tusks at all.
Elephants without tusks is crazy, and the fact that it's even a possibility is even crazier! How about we just not kill them at all? Would that be so hard?
2016 is supposed to be the Chinese Year of the Monkey. Instead, WildAid, a conservation nonprofit, is suggesting we wish people a happy Year of the Elephant.
Maybe if we can get everyone on board, we can help stamp out the ivory trade once and for all. A bunch of celebrities have already signed on to this idea including Lupita Nyong'o, Yao Ming, and Jackie Chan – Jackie Chan!