At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot. Its scent swirls up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible olfactory organ.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree and pluck a single leaf from its crown. Imagine having a nose that could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, or swat, poke and siphon with your nose. You could take a shower, scratch your back, or whistle with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
The seven-foot septum that divides Jabu’s nostrils is made of muscle, not cartilage. It becomes cartilage where his trunk attaches to his skull above his eyes. Thick layers of skin and muscle protect his trunk. It’s impossible for him to break his boneless nose, even when he uses it like a battering ram.
He picks up a wizened palm nut.
I ask Sandi, “How many of the fruits can he hold in his trunk?”
“Would you like a photo of that?” She takes some of the fruit already on the ground and puts them one, by one in the tip of Jabu’s trunk. “Jabu, good boy, Jabu, one more.”
Three, it turns out, but carefully placed so he can still breathe.
“Good, my boy, goooood. Okay Jabu!” Sandi tells him, and he spits out the fruits Whoooof! all at once.
Then he picks them up and gently tosses them, one by one, back to her.
As promised, I’m re-visiting the third most popular blog post of my blog in 2014: an excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.
Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”
She obliges by bending her left front leg at the knee and raising it, exposing a clear view of her breast. “See? Elephant mammary glands are located on the chest, like humans.”
I lean over Doug’s shoulder and look at two gray breasts with permanently erect nipples. They’re about the size of a medium cantaloupe and, like human breasts, slightly globular, due to the pull of gravity.
“Alllllll-right, Thembi.” As her foot touches the ground, she flaps her ears and her trunk snorfles around his feet.
“If you reach in like this,” Doug demonstrates, “you can feel them.”
Steadying myself with one hand on Thembi’s leg, I reach in and cup her breast with the other hand. The skin of her breast is as soft as an old, creased leather bag. Her nipple, as one might expect, is harder than the flesh around it.
Thembi emits a low, murmuring rumble.
“Oh you like that, do you, Thembi girl?” Doug chuckles.
I quickly withdraw my hand and step away from her side.
“Anyone else want to try?” asks Doug.
Out of the seven of us, several people look away, several look down. No one ventures forward. I can’t tell if everyone is embarrassed or just reticent. Feeling up an elephant may not be quite what they had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.
“Well, OK. Mammals are called mammals because . . . . ?”
One of the guests ventures, “Mammary glands?”
“Right.” Doug continues his lecture: “Like all mammals, Thembi’s lactiferous ducts terminate in her nipples. They point out a bit, while Morula’s nipples point down. Thembi gets a bit of stimulation while she walks, don’t you, Thembi girl?”
Some of the guests look mildly scandalized, while others giggle and whisper to each other.
Doug rubs Thembi’s leg, which generates another snorfle.
Female elephants don’t have a row of teats, like cats or dogs. They don’t lie on their sides, suckling a litter. Elephant calves nurse standing up, with their small trunks flipped over an eye like a wayward curl.
All mammal breasts are modified sweat glands. Some mammal breasts are located in the groin and some on the chest. The breasts between Thembi’s front legs are in the same location mine would be if I walked around on all fours. Her breasts weigh about four pounds each, .1% of her body weight. Human breasts weigh .08% of total body weight, dogs 2%, rats 9%.
Do all mammals have larger breast size to body weight than humans? I pull out my notebook to write down that question, but then decided I really don’t care, and put the notebook away.
“Is she pregnant?” asks the woman behind me.
Although Thembi possesses relatively trim tonnage in comparison to the other two elephants, she is significantly rounder – huge thighs, huge belly, a Rubenesque sort of girl with a really long nose – and very full breasts, unusually large for a non-pregnant elephant.
“We don’t think so,” Doug replies. “We had her hormone levels tested about six months ago, and they were normal. She’s an enthusiastic eater, so she might be a tad rotund because of that. She might be incubating a surprise, but we doubt it.”
Sandi laughs. “That’s because she’s a bit of a flirt with the wild boys around here, but when things get serious she becomes quite horrified and scoots on home.”
Another one of the guests pipes up: “Has Jabu ever tried mating with her?”
“Yes, he’s tried,” Sandi replies, “But we’ve never yet seen him achieve intromission.”
Heads nod thoughtfully. I can see intromission has thrown them a bit. It’s not a word commonly used to describe sexual penetration, but I think most of the guests have a general idea of what it might mean. Several of their heads swivel to gaze at Jabu, ripping apart a nearby bush. Since he’s such a big boy, why couldn’t he just have his own way?
“Thembi doesn’t really favor him,” says Sandi, as if she’s reading minds.
“What if she had a calf?”
There’s not one second of hesitancy to Sandi’s reply: “Oh, we’d keep it. It wouldn’t be easy, though. Thembi’s never been in a breeding herd and has no clue about birth. And she’s rather stuck on herself, you know. We don’t think she’d be a good mother. But if it happened, we’d make it work.”
Even though it’s not likely that Jabu and Thembi will become pachyderm parents, I can easily imagine Thembi as a pregnant princess, mood swings, food cravings and all. As if to prove my point, she regally sweeps through a stand of grass, a princess on a mission. She breaks off a few branches from a small thornbush, stuffs them against her back molars and chews with her mouth open.
Thembi has never been with an extended herd of mothers and sisters and aunts and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the complex behaviors required to be a mother. She’s never learned that newborn calves stay in physical contact ninety-nine percent of the time, either below or beside their mothers. Although calves will begin to forage by nine months, they continue to suckle for about four years. Elephants in zoos will quite frequently shun newborn calves. So I can just about predict Thembi’s reaction to a calf: What IS this thing following me around?
I glance over at Jabu. He has nipples, too. Guy nipples, nozzle-like nipples, surrounded with sparse hair.
All mammals have three distinct features: hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands. Even whales, dolphins, porpoises and manatees have hair, usually on their snouts or next to blowholes. Elephants and manatees shared a common ancestor fifty-six million years ago, but the nipples of female manatees are now under their flippers, in their armpits.
A question comes from the back of the tourist group. “What about Morula?”
Dear, Old Maid Morula. The wallflower with big ears, large liquid eyes and a knobby forehead.
“If an elephant doesn’t breed by the age of twenty-five, they are unlikely to,” Sandi replies. “Morula is already the ripe old age of thirty.”
Female elephants typically become active at a quite young age, around thirteen. They can conceive as early as ten years old and possibly have 12-15 offspring by the time they are fifty. Female calves will stay with the herd the rest of their lives.
Male elephants take a bit longer to mature and become sexually active around the age of twenty-nine.
Morula has missed the boat. But I’ll bet she’d make a great aunty. She stands close by, slowly opening and closing her great ears, patiently watching.
When he first developed his classification system, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus originally called mammals Quadrupedia, after the name Aristotle gave them. Later he became actively opposed to wet-nursing practices in the 1750s and wrote a book on the benefits of breast-feeding your own child. As a political act, he reclassified Quadrupedia to Mammalia in later editions of his most famous work, Systema Naturae, defining mammals as a lactating class within the Animalia kingdom, a classification that has lasted to this day – all because women of nobility in Linnaeus’s time thought breastfeeding would ruin their figures.
Certainly that’s one thing Thembi doesn’t have to worry about.
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to spy one. There’s a heart on Jabu’s trunk, a ridge of skin that feels like fine shoe leather. One of his wrinkles pierces the lower third of this heart shape, from left to right, straight as an arrow. His real heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, just like mine does. But instead of having a heart with a single point, an elephant’s heart has two points at its apex – so it’s the wrinkled outline of a human heart that Jabu carries on his trunk.
The length of Jabu’s real heart is about twenty-two inches, its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and among humans. My heart also weighs less than 1% of my body weight: about ten ounces.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – my heartbeat doesn’t need any messages from my brain. The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily constrict, all together, all at once, over and over, a soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, and then give them a small jolt of electricity. The remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract – all on their own, sometimes for hours.
It’s designed to be strong, my heart.
In mammals, birds, and reptiles the heart has the same basic pump-like design, a design that has worked through eons – even cold-blooded dinosaurs had hearts. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump practicing emptying, filling, emptying, refilling. An old, old pattern. The master timepiece.
There are four chambers in my heart: two auricles (“little ears”) and two ventricles (“little bellies”) – named by anatomists for the external parts of the body they resemble. Spent, dark-red blood is collected in the right auricle, then dropped into the right ventricle, which constricts and pumps it out to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Bright red again, full of oxygen, blood circulates back to the left auricle and from there drops into the left ventricle. In the next twitch blood is delivered to every corner of my body.
The “little ears,” the auricles, make very little sound as they drain blood into the lower chambers of my heart, a distance of an inch or so. It’s the ventricles, the “little bellies,” that boom as each contraction forces open heart valves and blood gushes up the aorta under pressure. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. One beat smaller, one beat larger, flush after flush.
My right ventricle has walls thin as paper – it delivers blood only as far as the lungs. If I could hold it up to the light I could see right through it. The left side of my heart is the heavyweight lifter, pumping blood all the way to my toes, moving 150,000 tons of blood in my lifetime.
Jabu’s great artery, the aorta, takes off from the left ventricle of his heart, the same as mine does. Named in the Middle Ages, aorta means, “to heave.” It’s an artery more flexible and sturdier than any manmade pipe. Jabu’s left ventricle pumps a continuous stream of blood up and out of his heart into the aorta, which then drops down into his chest and down each leg, where it branches and branches and branches all the way to his toes. Each arterial branch has less space than the artery it came from, but the sum of their volume is always greater than their mother artery. The blood moves, but more and more slowly through smaller and smaller pipes, trickling into all corners of Jabu’s body, trickling through capillaries one cell thick.
Blood’s trip back to the heart is made through veins. Millions of tiny venules drain into thousands of small veins, thousands drain to hundreds, hundreds to the one that empties back into the heart. Veins are even more elastic than arteries, can hold variable quantities of blood, and serve as a reservoir for all that moving liquid. At any one moment, 65% of my blood is contained in my veins. It’s an ancient blueprint, this branching, this heartbeat, this coming and going, a blueprint brought to life in even the tiniest of creatures.
Blood has to be literally hoisted from Jabu’s toes. Squeezed along by muscles wrapped around veins, pushed by valves in the veins, and sucked upward by the huge action of breathing, blood finally arrives in the vena cava, where it drops into the heart. Jabu has two vena cavae, possibly because of the large amounts of blood that need to be moved.The blood vessels of an African elephant reach lengths of twelve feet, a huge network of life.
Jabu’s body contains 120 gallons of blood, enough to fill an aquarium six feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep. At one-and-a-half gallons, my puny amount of blood would barely fill a birdbath.
Blood is the body’s only liquid organ, five times denser than water. It takes food and water in, removes waste and byproducts to the disposal areas of the body, the kidneys, lungs, and skin. Blood irrigates all tissue, both feeds and cleanses. It leaves the heart at one mile per hour and returns, laden with waste, at about half that speed. Construction materials move along highways of blood, demolished materials return. Blood is 20% solids and 80% water, carrying products of digestion, products made by the body, foreign intruders, the dust of stars, even cobalt from the original ocean of the earth where both of us, human and elephant, began our journeys.
We each have roughly one billion heartbeats for our lives. Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, all the same. Like us, elephants suffer cardiovascular disease, die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest: when the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs.
And when the heart quits beating, its resonance
Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP
is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone. The symphony of the body is finished.
For those of us left, that silence is almost too much to bear.