Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard

on June 23, 2013

We’ve talked a lot about Disney’s The Lion King in previous posts; there are a lot of moments in the film that can provide a bit of inspiration to learn something about African ecology. If you have seen the film, I’m sure you might remember how scary it was when Simba and Nala ventured into in the forbidden elephant graveyard. It was a dark and gloomy place beyond the edge of the pridelands, and vast piles of elephant bones could be seen as far as the eye could see. Thankfully, that eerie scene takes place in a mythological place.

A still of the lion cubs Simba and Nala from Disney's 'The Lion King' in the elephant graveyard.

Simba and Nala are suitably afraid in the spooky elephant graveyard.

The concept of an elephant graveyard is widely known and stuck in the cultural memory, however, the truth of why we think that all elephants go to one place to die, isn’t entirely known. There is definitely evidence that elephant remains can be found localised in certain spots, but why are these elephants coming together in such morbid scenarios? Before we can answer that, there are few facts we need to know about African elephants (Loxodonta Africana); about their behaviour, about their environment and about their physiology.

African elephants are herbivores, meaning they feed exclusively on plant matter such as leaves, roots and bark, and as you would imagine, they can eat a lot of it; an adult might be able to take in 450kg of food in a day. In order to get through all this food they are equipped with appropriate tools, namely a trunk and teeth. The elephant’s trunk is a remarkable, fascinating organ, but in this post, we will focus on the teeth.

Elephants only really have two types of teeth: molars and incisors. Molars are the teeth inside an elephant’s mouth; they are large and solid and used for grinding up tough materials like tree bark. Elephant tusks are actually elongated incisors, very elongated in fact. They are used for a wide range of purposes from fighting and defence to acquiring food and manipulating their environment.

An African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) uses its trunk to drink water whilst showing its impressive tusks.

Elephant tusks grow continually throughout their lives and act as useful tools.
Photo Credits.

So what do elephants’ teeth have to do with elephant graveyards? Well, elephants’ molars are continuously being replaced throughout their lives; new teeth grow in the back of their mouths and push old ones out at the front. They can cycle through six sets of molars through their lives and an elephant can live for fifty to sixty years. The tusks have a different story, they grow slowly and continuously throughout the elephant’s life and their size is regulated by constant wearing down. The fact that elephants have a predetermined number of sets of teeth means that, if they live for long enough, there will come a time when they do not have functional teeth in old age, meaning that they would struggle to process tough plant matter and could possibly be drawn to sources of water that are populated by softer and more nutritious plants. The age of these elephants also means that they ‘appreciate’ staying in an area that has dense vegetation, rather than using a lot energy looking around for food.

The remains of an African Elephant's (Loxodonta africa) jaws showing its molar and premolar teeth.

The molars of an elephant grow from the rear of the mouth and move forward like a conveyor belt as can be seen in these elephant jaws.
Photo Credits.

As the animals get even older they will be able to access less and less food and start to decline in health and inevitably die and over time, many elephants may suffer the same fate which results in their remains being deposited in the same areas. A similar cause of elephant remains accumulating may be related to their general health. As elephants get sicker, for whatever reason, be it disease or parasites, they might seek out water for rehydration, however, a sick elephant has a higher probability of dying than a healthy one and so again, a series of sick elephants may end up dying at the same water hole and their remains will accumulate over time.

So an elephant’s diet and dentition can have an impact on where they die. Of course, many elephants lose their lives from injury or predation or any number of causes and will not deposit their remains near water, however, it happens enough that early observers noted the density of elephant bones in certain areas and drew their own conclusions. There are other theories on how elephant remains accumulate, including trade stockpiles of ivory that became abandoned or even that elephants may gather up bones of their deceased compatriots, but ultimate, no one is 100% sure as to where the idea of an elephant graveyard comes from.

What we do know is that elephant bones can be found in high concentrations at certain locations, those locations are often near sources of water, ill and elderly elephants often seek out and stay close to water, ill and elderly elephants are also more likely to die and therefore, more likely to leave their remains in a localised area. So the elephant graveyard might be a real place, but it’s certainly not as dramatic and conspicuous as is depicted in fiction such as the scene in The Lion King.

Much love,

-Nick


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Disney category.
Other Disney entries:
Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?
Scar: The black maned lion
Pumbaa: What Disney didn’t tell you
Advertisements

14 responses to “Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard

  1. There is something so compelling about elephants. I remember being taken to the circus or zoo and telling my parents that I hated seeing the elephants and other animals in cages or made to work. I haven’t changed my mind of that either…Michelle

    • Wildlife TV says:

      I’m glad you’re so fond of elephants, they are indeed wonderful animals. It can be hard to see such intelligent and beautiful creatures in distress.
      Thanks,
      -Nick

  2. Very interesting Nick. I always love to know more and more about wildlife. Elephants are incredible creatures. Some might say even closer to humans than humans think.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Yeah, elephants are remarkable animals; they are very socially, emotionally and intellectually advanced but it can sometimes be hard to realise it because they aren’t as close to us as monkeys or apes.
      Thanks,
      -Nick

  3. Great blog entry about an often-misinterpreted natural phenomenon. I’ve seen elephants handling the bones of deceased herd members. They don’t move them very far – hyenas certainly do the work of scattering smaller bones. What moves me is that elephants handling elephant remains – and I’m unapologetically anthropomorphic here – are still and quiet, as if contemplating, remembering the life of the elephant who is gone.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Thank you!
      Yeah, it does seem as if elephants are very drawn to the remains of other elephants. They will spend a lot of time around recently deceased elephants, especially if they are relatives, it can almost be tempting to say they are ‘mourning’.
      -Nick

  4. rabirius says:

    Interesting post.

  5. Alison Jobling says:

    Thanks for this explanation, Nick – I found the idea of the elephants’ graveyard inexplicably tragic. They’re such inspiring animals, with their close family structures and playful young, and apparently a lot more intelligent than we gave them credit for.

    • Wildlife TV says:

      They are indeed amazing creatures. It’s remarkable that an animal that appears to be so different from us can have so many social and emotional traits that we can identify with.
      -Nick

      • Alison Jobling says:

        I think it’s a great reminder that we share more than we often realise with so many animals and birds. I’d love for more people to understand this – might make conservation a lot easier if they saw animals as very much like us (except without the cars and mobile phones ;-).)

  6. carballidojl says:

    Hi, Thanks for the post. I was answering if you know about some published report about this, to use the reference in a scientific work. Thanks again!

    • Wildlife TV says:

      Hi! Thanks for commenting.
      The book ‘Beat About the Bush – Mammals’ by Trevor Carnaby is a good starting point for information on this subject (and a whole range of other topics relating to African mammals too.
      Cheers,
      -Nick

  7. […] (5) Mistery of th eelephants graveyard […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: