The most iconic feature of an elephant is its tusks. A little-known fact is that the sought-after tusks are overgrown teeth rooted high in the jaw bone. Not all elephants develop long tusks, and this is wholly based on their genetic makeup. For example, Asian elephant females never grow tusks, and only some of the males get them. In contrast, the majority of African elephants will get tusks.
Since elephants do not rely on their tusks for survival, it’s natural to assume that they have no purpose. But in reality, the tusks can serve and protect the animal in many ways. They’re like having a multi-tool attached to your face, making specific tasks much more manageable!
Let’s take a look at five of the most common tasks elephants use their tusks for.
What Do Elephants Use Their Tusks For?
Elephants dig quite a bit to get to the root of plants and to extract minerals like salt from the soil. This technique allows the elephant to get the most water possible from their food, which optimally maintains hydration and digestion.
Individuals with tusks will often use one of their tusks to dig rather than using their feet. Most elephants prefer one tusk for digging; just like most people have one hand they gravitate towards using to write. You can tell which tusk an elephant prefers to dig with based on how the tip of the ivory looks. Many are slightly blunted from digging or may have discoloration. This behavior is typical in African forest elephants that are native to the forests of Central Africa.
Although the primary purpose isn’t for leisure, elephants will often rest their trunk on their tusk. One could observe this relaxed posture after an elephant has eaten or even while they’re sleeping.
An elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles which can be burdensome after a lot of activity. This is where having long tusks can be a major benefit. The tusks can even be used for support while leaning up against trees or propping the head up while laying down. Since the tusks are strong, bearing weight on them is not a problem and doesn’t cause pain to the animal.
Tusks can be used as weapons and offer a form of protection to the elephant. It’s common to see male elephants fighting while they’re in musth which is a time of increased testosterone causing aggression. These disputes are often over females but can be unprovoked if a male is particularly aggressive.
Male elephants can also get increasingly aggressive with females they mate with at this time. It’s not uncommon for females to get wounds on their hips from a male ramming his tusks into them forcefully.
It isn’t unheard of to see female elephants fighting, although it’s usually less frequent. Female elephants typically utilize their tusks to fight when they feel threatened. A herd may get aggressive when there’s a relatively new baby they’re trying to protect or if an unknown elephant approaches that seems potentially dangerous. Fighting between females is generally done out of necessity, whereas fighting between males often stems from the spike in hormones.
4. Tool Use
Elephants are very intelligent animals and their tusks can be used for the most delicate of tasks, such as untwisting wires and dismembering fences that the individual comes across. This behavior has been observed in wild elephants that happen upon boundaries and captive individuals in poorly designed enclosures.
Since the tusks often come to a point, they can easily take things apart and cause much-calculated destruction. Elephants have great control over their tusks since they’re rooted so deep in their jaw, which gives them the ability to complete such tasks.
Tusks can also assist the trunk in lifting and balancing heavy objects, like tree trunks. Not only is this seen in captivity with logging elephants, but also with wild elephants that break trees to eat the leaves or bark. The tusks come in handy when the strength of the trunk isn’t quite enough.
Head posture plays a significant role in non-verbal communication. For elephants with tusks, this contributes to the physical cues the individual can send to other elephants based on the posture and position of the tusks.
Certain tusk positions are seen as more aggressive and are more likely to start a confrontation. Elephants that raise their head higher than usual with their tusks in the air are usually in an attack-ready position. An elephant usually follows this up by charging at their perceived threat. If this is a human, the tusks are often brought downward and are used as a weapon to either knock them to the ground or pin them down.
An elephant with tusks is often more dangerous and dextrous due to its additional appendages. Unfortunately, tusks are becoming less prevalent among elephant populations, even though they are handy for many tasks. With the demand for ivory being so high, tusks are starting to get bred out of lineages.
Those without tusks live longer and therefore have more time to reproduce and spread their genes. Additionally, as the tusks are a potential cause of young death, more females may choose to breed with non-tusked males. Mate selection plays a significant role in the frequency of baby elephants developing long tusks.
Although tusks are not vital for survival in the wild, they can provide additional protection and skill. Next time you see an elephant with tusks, take a longer look to evaluate the kinds of activities they’ve used their tusks for! See which one has a duller tip to determine if the elephant is right-tusked or left-tusked for digging and tool use. If you can get a close-up look, check for scratches or dents in the tusks that could indicate past altercations. An elephant’s tusks can tell a story if we look closely.