What do Elephants Eat?
All elephants are herbivores which means that they consume only plant life. They will get it anywhere they can. Part of the reason why they have been able to survive for millions of years is due to their intelligence. What they lack in basic survival skills they make up for with creativity. In fact, it can be fascinating to watch elephants feeding in their natural environment.
Due to their large size they can get food from the ground all the way up to high areas of trees. They can even use their trunks to reach fruits growing up there that other types of animals simply can’t reach. They are very intelligent when it comes to getting food as well. They aren’t going to walk away and leave that food source for other animals that come along.
For example if the food they want is too high, they will wrap the trunk around it and then shake it rapidly. This process usually is one that allows plenty of food to fall to the group for them and their offspring to consume. If that doesn’t work the elephant may just take the entire tree or plant out of the ground and then consume it.
One of the biggest problems facing them in the wild is that lack of available food. Since their habitat continues to get smaller and smaller they have fewer choices for feeding. They also may be in competition in some areas with other elephants for the same sources of food.
Elephants can spend up to 16 hours a day looking for food. They don’t seem to be in a hurry to find it, and take their time grazing. One of the reasons why they have to consume so much food daily is due to their bodies. They only process about 40% of what they eat as the rest of it never gets digested.
The digestion process for the elephant is very different than that of other animals. It really isn’t understood why their bodies don’t digest more of what they consume. They need to consume lots of water and this is done through the trunk. They can consume up to 15 quarts of water at one time. During certain parts of the year it is hard for them to find plenty of water though.
They will use their tusks to dig into the ground to find the water supplies that they need. This water is also used by other animals in the wild. Many people feel that the elephant’s eating habits destroy the environment on a large scale. However, they tend to move around often enough that they don’t deplete a given area of all of the vegetation there. This movement actually allows more of it to grow there.
The mothers provide rich milk to their offspring for about 4 years. If she gets pregnant in that span of time though she will wean them early. In order for the mothers to get enough food to create the milk they do so during the day and other females in the herd watch after the young. While the babies can start to consume plants at about a year old, they need the nutritional value of that milk to grow and to thrive.
Sadly, as an elephant gets older the teeth start to wear away from this type of diet. That is why so many of them end up dying from starvation. It is a slow process and one that seems to take quite a toll on the entire herd due to the strong bonds that they form in their herds.
R. Sukumar. The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.
Murray E. Fowler, Susan K. Mikota. Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants. John Wiley & Sons,2008.