Ask Peter

posted: 05/15/12

If you missed our Cave Elephants live chat with Peter Gros, former host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, we've got the transcript with your elephant questions answered, right here.

Animal Planet: Welcome to our live chat and thank you for joining us after Animal Planet's Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom special Cave Elephants. Do you want to know more about these mysterious elephants? Or, are you just curious about elephants in general? Well, Peter Gros, our guest wildlife expert and former co-host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, is here to answer your questions.

Peter Gros: Thank you! I look forward to answering any questions you may have about what I consider to be one of the most intelligent and amazing species of wildlife on our planet.

Soola: Do all elephants need salt like these cave elephants?

Peter Gros: Yes they do. Salt is a necessary part of an elephant's diet, they're generally found in hotter climates, and the salt aids in retaining water. Generally savanna elephants get the required amount of salt from the masses of vegetation they eat - from trees, shrubs, shoots - but in the case where they're in a rainy forest, heavy rains wash most of the required salt from the vegetation they eat.

Sarah: How much does the average elephant weigh?

Peter Gros: Eight thousand pounds is an average adult weight. When they're born, they weigh over 200 pounds. They continue to grow throughout most of their lives, some exceeding 8,000 pounds. A large bull African elephant's tusks may weigh as much as 130 pounds each, which is a mixture of dentine, calcium, and salt.

Samantha: Is it true that elephants never forget? If so, how do we know?

Peter Gros: Samantha, I think elephants are among the most intelligent animals. I wouldn't say they NEVER forget, but they do have tremendous memories, where they store behavior information, experiences of droughts, dangerous places and situations, and promising feeding sites. Some of their social behavior suggests they possess mind tools to understand what other elephants are feeling. The matriarch (an older leader of a herd of elephants) develops the intelligence which she shares with all the other elephants in the herd. Thus it is passed from one generation to the next.

grizzle: What are the differences between Asian and African elephants?

Peter Gros: African elephants are larger, with a concave back, and larger ears. Its trunk possesses width. Whereas an Asian elephant which is smaller, generally has smaller tusks, and one lip at the very end of the trunk. At a quick glance, the African elephant's ears are shaped like the continent of Africa. The Asian elephant's ears are shaped a little like Asia.

Marilyn: Why are elephants so endangered?

Peter Gros: Many species of wild animals have become endangered due to loss of habitat. However, with elephants, the demand for elephant tusks, which for years was the main source of commercial ivory, has brought about a drastic decline in elephant populations over the past 150 years. There is hope, since stricter laws affecting the sale of ivory are protecting elephants, as well as anti-poaching patrols and large national parks, creating habitat for elephants.

Beth: What do elephants eat?

Peter Gros: They eat a varied diet, of over 100 species of plant material. However, there are 10-25 different foodstuffs. Crops also play a part in their diet, which has created problems for them. Elephants spend at least three quarters of their time searching for and consuming food. In the wet season, savanna elephants eat mainly grasses plus small amounts of leaves from a wide range of trees and shrubs. After the rains have ended, and the grass has withered, they turn to the woody parts of the trees and shrubs. They also eat large quantities of flowers and fruits when these are available. They will dig for roots, especially after the first rains of the season. Because of their large body size, an elephant needs about 160-350 pounds of food per day which is roughly 50 tons per year. However, less than half of this is thoroughly digested. Elephants rely on gut microflora to help with digestion.

meghan: I heard that elephants can only have 1 baby every 5 years. Is that true?

Peter Gros: You're right! Females can conceive roughly every 4-5 years if they've had a successful delivery and raised the young. Elephants have an exceptionally long gestation period, averaging 630 days to 2 years. The calves are usually born in the wet season, when conditions are optimal for their survival. In particular, abundant green food helps ensure greater success in the early months of life. First year survival of calves is assumed to be 70-80 percent. Recent data from tracking 13 mothers with calves over a two year period suggested 95% of offspring, in fact, survive.

Xander: What is the truth behind the existence of "Elephant Graveyards"?

Peter Gros: The supposed existence of elephant graveyards is a myth. It's possible that old elephants whose days are numbered may congregate on riverbanks to feed on lush vegetation. With very old elephants their teeth are drastically worn, so they seek softer green foods for foraging.

Alexia: Do elephants ever have twins?

Peter Gros: Very rarely.

maddy: Is it true that elephants migrate? If so, why?

Peter Gros: It is true. Elephants do migrate, although it's become harder with roads and fences being installed over past migration routes. Elephants generally migrate to follow seasonal rains to survive.

kellie: How do you teach an elephant to paint pictures?

Peter Gros: Find a paintbrush with a long handle! I have heard of elephants that paint, and it's my understanding they are fed their favorite foods after they slop paint around on nearby canvasses. This is a trained behavior, which elephants learn very quickly since they are so intelligent, so they associate their modern "art" with the food reward that follows. Although I'm sure there are just some very creative elephants out there too :-)

Margery: Is it true that elephants are the only animals with a trunk and why do you think they developed trunks?

Peter Gros: The trunk is actually an extension of the lip and nose that has become elongated and muscular to form a trunk. It is formed since, unlike other herbivores, the elephant cannot reach the ground with its mouth. The fact that early probosidans did not evolve an elongated neck may have been due to the weight of their heavy cranial jaw structure. Besides enabling the elephant to feed on the ground, it's also an aid in feeding from trees, tearing down branches. It's used for drinking, greeting, caressing, threatening, squirting water, and throwing dust and forming an amplification of vocalizations.

Karina: How do elephants communicate with each other?

Peter Gros: Elephants communicate with a variety of sounds. We've recently learned a lot of the communication is done through infrasound, meaning below the range of human hearing. The user calls and long-distance signaling sends very low frequency sounds, and uses very little energy while traveling. An elephant's powerful infrasonic calls also have the function to express excitement, distress, and separation of family members.

Jay: How long is an elephant's life span?

Peter Gros: An elephant's life span is about the same as a human being's.

malanai: How can you tell an elephant's age?

Peter Gros: By the size of his tusks, his actual body size, the condition of his teeth, which is not an easy thing to check! And his general physical condition.

blanca: Is it true that elephants can't jump? Why not?

Peter Gros: It is hard to jump when you exceed 8,000 pounds! However, they are incredibly agile, and can ford rivers, climb gullies, navigate thick sand dunes and narrow rocky ledges.

raedene: What are an elephant's natural enemies? They're so big, I wouldn't think they'd have any!

Peter Gros: An elephant is most vulnerable when it is first born. Lions, hyenas, and other carnivores can be a threat. However, the young are protected in a very organized fashion. The oldest female, the matriarch, leads the family unit. The social bonds between the members of the family are very strong, and in times of danger, the family forms a defensive circle with calves in the middle, and adults facing outwards. The matriarch or other adult females will check the bearing of the threat, which could be a lion or a human being, then retreat. But sometimes she may advance and confront the danger, spreading her ears and trumpeting with thunderous growls. A threat with ears outstretched is often enough to deter an aggressor. It has always worked with me!

Lordofthepainteddogs: Do the elephants ever break their tusks while chipping off the salt? And do any other large herbivores, like buffalo, duikers, bush pigs, bushbuck, etc., go into these caves for the salt as well?

Peter Gros: Yes, the elephants consistently wear their tusks down and occasionally will split one or break it off. The other animals will also be drawn to the cave for salt. However, some predators may be drawn to the cave, knowing it's an attraction for prey.

Sketcher: What evidence is there that the caves were created by elephants?

Peter Gros: The caves were actually created by an extinct volcano. However, with thousands of years of returning pachyderm miners, the interior walls are changing. And the cave does seem to be becoming a little larger.

LEB23: How much salt do they need to survive?

Peter Gros: We don't know exactly how much, since most elephants are consuming salt regularly as part of their daily diet. In the cave, it appears as though they're eating fairly large quantities, since they may not return for weeks.

mp1502: How do the elephants know that they need the salt?

Peter Gros: Instinctually they are driven in the same manner in which they seek out water. It's one of the needs required for their survival, and instinct is a powerful force. Generations of elephants have been returning to these caves and that information has been shared and remembered, generation after generation.

Bong69: Is bushmeat for survival purposes or for business/profit?

Peter Gros: Bushmeat is sometimes sold in the market, and used for trade, as well as survival.

LEB23: Do you think the cave elephants will ever trust humans again?

Peter Gros: Yes. Already we've seen how they've been accepting the 2 rangers, Daniel and Mike, as they approach the herd in very close proximity. The more frequently the elephants are exposed to humans not trying to harm them, they will start to lose their fear. As the years go by, and elephants are protected from poachers, they will accept humans as part of their habitat with guarded acceptance.

LEB23: I only caught the second half of the show, and I saw the baby in the salt mine with the poacher's snare around its foot, does it ever get removed? Peter Gros: Generally when elephants have been caught in a wire snare, they can be tranquilized with a drug called M99, where the elephant is simply, painlessly immobilized in 3-5 minutes. The wire is then cut off. If there's a wound, it is treated. The drug is then reversed with an antidote called M50-50, and within one minute's time, the elephant is back on its feet, rejoining the herd. cindy: Is there a fund set up for donations to help protect the cave elephants? Peter Gros: Yes, there are several. Save the Elephants by Dr. Ian Douglas, the African Elephant Specialist Group, The African Elephant Trust, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. You can go to the web link on the Cave Elephant site and find a list of more. Lheir: How do the cave elephants see in the darkness deep within the caves? Peter Gros: They actually use their other senses, the sense of smell and feel, their keen sense of hearing, and the adults feel their way along, sometimes in single file, using their trunks to feel the terrain before taking each step. The babies lean against or grab their mothers with their trunks, and simply follow the mother. Even outside the caves, elephants do not have excellent eyesight and rely heavily on their senses of smell and sound. el4ant: Do elephants ever get colds or any other illnesses like people? Peter Gros: el4ant, elephants do get sick sometimes, like people. If an older elephant or a baby is lagging behind, the others circle it and urge it along to help keep it warm and support it until it is well again. Adult elephants have been seen crushing food in their mouths and allowing young or ailing elephants to remove the food. The food is then collected and chewed. Irish: Is Elgon in Kenya as stated in the TV show or in Uganda? Peter Gros: Elgon is in Kenya. tammi: Elephant skin looks so tough! Is it thick? What does it feel like to the touch? Peter Gros: It is quite thick, and looks to be very tough, but elephant skin is very sensitive. I've seen elephants grazing and an insect lands on their head or back. They'll shake their skin to make them move, or grab a trunkful of dust to remove them. So as tough and thick as it is, it's still incredibly sensitive to the touch. They feel like rough leather. nicholaus: Are elephants carnivores or herbivores? Peter Gros: They are herbivores. Although, considering the amount of vegetation they eat in a day, I'm sure they're inadvertently consuming large quantities of insects as well! Bong69: Do elephants have supersonic hearing, like dogs? Peter Gros: They do. Elephants have incredibly keen hearing. They communicate with very low frequency sounds that the human ear can't detect. The most common elephant vocalization is a growl emanating from the larynx, what used to be called a "tummy rumble" This sound could carry up to 6/10 of a mile and is usually used to maintain contact with other elephants, as well as the subsonic infrasound. Bong69: What are the penalties for suspected poachers? Peter Gros: It varies between countries. The penalties are becoming rather strict; poachers are arrested. KrazyStarz: If the elephants have been wiped down to low numbers, are there high cases of inbreeding then? Peter Gros: Very good question. I'm just looking up some numbers for you. I don't believe inbreeding is a problem to date, since there is still a large unrelated population base. So I am assuming there is still a fairly diversified gene pool. That is an excellent question for Ian Redmond or Ian Douglas. You can contact them via the website. The Save the Elephants foundation would also have that information. nikki: What do you think of elephants in the circus? I'm doing a paper for school so please answer. Peter Gros: Elephants are highly intelligent animals with very specific needs. Both African and Asian elephants have been displayed in zoos and parks around the world successfully as a way to generate interest for their preservation. If elephants are going to be in a captive situation, they belong in the hands of professionals to ensure their humane treatment. sjs: My concern is that their habitat seems to be constantly diminishing. Can they adjust to this? Peter Gros: Their habitat is diminishing. But ecotourism seems to be a strong incentive to save remaining habitats and in some cases, replant habitats as with Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots foundation. In many countries, ecotourism has created a nice economic base creating the incentive to save many species of wildlife and the habitat that it occupies. So I'm optimistic that, as more and more people become aware and concerned about preserving and seeing wildlife in the wild, the more incentive there will be to preserve the habitat that these animals need to exist. Oftentimes, when I speak to groups of young people, they perceive habitat as something in faraway lands, when in fact, planting shrubs, trees, and plants in your back yard or volunteering for county and state and federal parks, you are creating habitat. Be it on a back yard scale, or much larger. So we can all help in our own way. Animal Planet: Thank you so much for a great chat! Unfortunately, we are almost out of time. Do you have any parting words for us? Peter Gros: The key to the elephant's survival seems to lie in extending tolerant attitudes, and educating people to recognize elephants as a valuable natural resource, as a cultural asset. The elephant is called a "keystone" species, namely one that pays dividends by benefiting other animals within its ecosystem. So elephants play a pivotal role dispersing seeds, transforming savanna into grasslands, distributing nutrients, providing water for other species by digging water holes, distributing insects and other small animals while walking in tall grass, which helps feed birds, and even alerting other animals to approaching predators. So I am convinced that ongoing education in the next generation will ensure we can save this magnificent species. A production of LiveWorld. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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