Hi, my name is Marie Galloway. I am the elephant manager here at National Zoo. Those of you that have been following our website for a long time might remember me from the “Moving In” blog. I wrote updates in 2010 when the elephants were moving into the new Elephant Trails Phase 1 exhibit. Currently, we are expanding the number of writers contributing to the Elephant Diaries blog. So, you will see my name here from time to time, along with others from our elephant staff. This month's update is from keeper
With the full force of the summer heat starting to wear off, many of the animals at the Zoo are breathing a breath of relief—but the elephants aren't among them. While our zoo visitors may be struggling to keep cool, elephants are naturally gifted with some unique adaptations that help them tremendously during hot weather. Elephants, both Asian and African, may not be particularly cheerful on hot days, but they are no strangers to intense heat.
With a warm and humid natural habitat, Asian elephants have many adaptations and behaviors that help them keep cool. Although Asian elephants’ ears are significantly smaller than those of the African elephants, they still play a vital role in lowering body temperature.
Although it may look like they are fanning themselves with those large ears, they are actually cooling the blood inside very fine vessels called capillaries. In the heat, these veins enlarge to radiate heat and gain a greater surface area for air to flow across. This technique coupled with ear flapping allows the blood in these veins to cool quickly. This cooled blood is circulated throughout the body to the brain and other critical organs to keep them at a more stable temperature. With this process, the critical organs have mild temperature fluctuations, allowing them to maintain normal functions. The skin layer, on the other hand, is more exposed to the heat of the day.
Dust and mud bathing is the best way for an elephant to keep their skin protected from the heat and sun—the elephant alternative to sunscreen. Elephants suck thick mud into their trunks, and then blow it onto their bodies. It is quite a talent, in fact, one that our 64 year old female Ambika does with flair. If you get the chance to watch this spectacle, you will see just how much thought they put into the placement of mud. You may even see them make a mud puddle by spraying clean water onto the ground and stirring with their trunk, making a small mud hole. After a good mud bath, often they will cover themselves in dry sand. That seems contradictory, you might be thinking. Wouldn't having a blanket of sand on your skin make you feel hotter? Actually, covering themselves in sand once they have had a bath (mud or regular), keeps them cooler for much longer than without it. The sand essentially locks the moisture into all the wrinkles on their skin. It also keeps the sun directly off their backs and wards off those pesky mosquitoes.
Now, we may not be able to wiggle our ears for natural air conditioning, and you won't find me rolling in the sand to keep myself cool! But we do share one popular summer cool-down activity with elephants—swimming. Both Asian and African elephants love water, and swimming is a favorite activity anytime a watering hole is found on a hot summer day. Elephants are actually quite the swimmers, as they are naturally buoyant. While they enjoy a cool soak, they often will use their trunks as shower heads. In deeper water, while fully submerged, their trunk converts to a snorkel and allows them to breathe while swimming longer distances. All three of our elephants love to swim, something Elephant Trails helps foster. Ambika's favorite time to swim is in the middle of a downpour. Shanthi loves to relax in the pool, and spends much of her time floating on her side. Kandula has a very entertaining pool routine on hot summer days. We often see him enjoying his lunch while swimming, followed by a good roll in his favorite sand pile near the Asia Trail overlook. Thoroughly covered in sand, he will take some more hay down into the pool with him for another good swim and a snack. Clean skinned once again, he will go for another dust roll. This continues for quite some time, bathing in the pool and sand dusting, and our zoo visitors get a good laugh.
These interesting behaviors help our elephants stay cool in the summertime, and combined with the amenities the barn has to offer, along with daily baths and cool hose water showers, Shanthi, Ambika and Kandula are making it through the summer comfortably.
We now have an account where people can email questions about the elephants at the Zoo and elsewhere. We will always try to answer the questions as accurately as we can but we can’t guarantee it will be in the form of an email to the sender. We may decide the best way to answer is to post a reply in an Elephant Diary. Let me know if you have any questions or comments.