Here’s an interesting photo provided by Markus Bühler (of Bestiarium): it shows a bull Asian elephant Elephas maximus at Hagenbeck Zoo, Hamburg.
The picture is neat for a few reasons. For one, it emphasises the agility of elephants: despite their size and ‘graviportal’ specialisations, they can still do some pretty impressive bending and stooping. They’re not bad at climbing slopes, albeit ones much shallower than the zoo trench shown here. Actually, people have reported (and even illustrated) elephants clambering down precipitous slopes. Tennent (1867) showed an Asian elephant clambering down a slope on its elbows, belly and knees, and quoted a report from 1844 that described this behaviour. The 1844 report even states that this ‘is done at more than an angle of 45°;’ (Carrington 1958). I admit to being slightly sceptical however.
What also interests me is the shape of the bull’s head…
You will note that he has large twinned domes on the top of his head, and a large bony convexity at the base of his trunk. These aren’t unusual features; they’re typical for big, old males, but they’re unfamiliar to many people because they’re used to seeing females or juveniles of this species. Since 1987, two particularly large bull Asian elephants – Raja Gaj and Kansha – have been observed (and later photographed and filmed) in Bardia National Park, Nepal (Lister & Blashford-Snell 1999). Raja Gaj [shown here] was about 3 m tall at the shoulder. Both animals exhibited particularly massive skull domes and a large nasal convexity, and this unusual appearance led to the speculation that the animals might be living examples of Stegodon. This idea seems to have originated from Clive Coy at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and was promoted by John Blashford-Snell, who led an expedition to film the Bardia elephants and (with actress Rula Lenska) later wrote a book on them (Blashford-Snell & Lenska 1996). In fact the Bardia elephants don’t look like Stegodon at all, and when lecturing on the Bardia elephants the picture that Blashford-Snell would show of a Stegodon was not a Stegodon at all, but in fact a reconstruction of the fossil Asian species E. hysudricus from Osborn’s 1942 The Proboscidea* [I was the first person to point this out to him, it seems]. Somewhere, things had gotten confused.
* In keeping with its subject matter, this is a publication of massive proportions. It consists of two volumes, each is huge (but, without a copy in front of me, I dare not guess how huge).
Lister (1995) had noted that the Bardia elephants superficially resembled E. hysudricus [life restoration shown here], and he suggested that bottlenecking had resulted in the emergence of genetic ‘throwbacks’ in the Bardia region. Later DNA results were to confirm this: the Bardia elephants were genetically bottlenecked and quite distinct compared to other Asian elephant populations, but they were definitely part of E. maximus (though note that I say all this from stuff I’ve seen on TV: I can’t find it reported in the literature). Indeed, as emphasised by the Hagenbeck Zoo example shown above, the skull morphology of the Bardia elephants wasn’t that unusual anyway, with the Bardia animals falling within the range of variation already known for Asian elephants – albeit at the extreme end of that range. The late Clinton Keeling was to point out that the twinned skull domes of big, old Asian elephant males were termed ‘domes of wisdom’ in Indian folklore.
One last thing: E. hysudricus, the fossil species sometimes compared to the Bardia elephants, is – in being Asian – not necessarily typical of fossil members of its genus, as some of the best known fossil Elephas species were African. In fact Elephas probably originated in Africa (during the early Pliocene) and spent more of its evolutionary history in this continent than in Asia.
For previous pachydermal posts see Of dragons, marsupial lions and the sixth digits of elephants: functional anatomy part II, How do you masturbate an elephant?, RIP Yeheskel Shoshani and The tangled mammoths.
Refs – –
Blashford-Snell, J. & Lenska, R. 1996. Mammoth Hunt: In Search of the Giant Elephants of Nepal. Harper Collins, London.
Carrington, R. 1958. Elephants: A Short Review of Their Natural History, Evolution and Influence on Mankind. Chatto & Windus, London.
Lister, A. M. 1995. Living in isolation. Geographical Magazine 1995 (Jan), 35-37.
– . & Blashford-Snell, J. 1999. Exceptional size and form of Asian elephants in western Nepal. Elephant 2, 33-36.
Tennent, J. E. 1867. The Wild Elephant, and the Method of Capturing and Taming it in Ceylon. Longmans, Green and Co., London.