When it comes to animals, there is no question that elephants have a special place in the hearts of many. Scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, elephants are the largest land animals currently in existence.
If you have been to a zoo, or seen a photograph of an elephant, you know that most of these animals sport long, ivory tusks. But what purpose do tusks serve? Why do elephants have tusks in the first place?
It turns out, tusks not only look cool, but they are essential to the species’ survival.
What Is a Tusk?
For most mammals, tusks are simply enlarged canine teeth. This is a little different for elephants, whose tusks are elongated incisors. These tusks are essentially no different from other teeth. It is important to note that all African elephants have tusks, but only some Asian ones do.
About one third of an elephant’s tusk is embedded in the animal’s skull and out of view. This part is made up of tissue, blood, and nerves. This visible part of the tusk is called ivory, and it is made up of dentine with an outer layer of enamel.
Elephant tusks never stop growing, which means older Elephants can grow some pretty massive ones. Unfortunately, the average size of elephant tusks has decreased over the years. It seems that the over-hunting of elephants for their ivory has made it evolutionarily more beneficial to have shorter tusks, or none at all. The “big tusk gene” is therefore becoming increasingly rare.
Why Do Elephants Have Tusks?
While natural selection might be favoring elephants with smaller tusks today, we have evolution to thank for elephant tusks to begin with.
Tusks gave elephants an evolutionary advantage because of all the different purposes they serve for the species. Elephants can use their tusks to dig, lift objects, and move things out of the way. Tusks are also used to gather food and strip bark from trees.
Elephant tusks make for good weapons, and can be helpful in fighting off predators and other elephants. Large tusks can also be used to attract the interest of females.
Furthermore, tusks protect an elephant’s trunk, which is a valuable tool for drinking water, breathing, and eating, among other uses.
Interestingly, elephants are either left or right tusked, in much the same way humans are left or right handed. You can often tell which is the dominant tusk because it will be the one that is more worn down from being used so frequently.
The Hunt For Ivory
For all the benefits that tusks provide elephants, in many ways they are a bit of a curse. Elephant ivory has long been a popular material, used to make all sort of different products, from billiards balls to piano keys.
For nearly every piece of ivory, there is a dead elephant behind it. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), poachers kill some 20,000 elephants every year for their tusks. These tusks are then traded on the black market, becoming trinkets and other products. (Other animals also produce ivory, so not all ivory goods come from elephants. However, elephants remain by far the largest source).
If you would like to help, you can always consider giving to animal rights organizations, like the WWF. Many organizations are working to get government and public support to stop wildlife crime. You can also call your local lawmakers, and urge them to commit to long-term elephant ivory demand reduction efforts.
At the end of the day, elephant tusks may be gradually disappearing, and that is sad considering all the benefits that they give the species.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.