Monday, April 29, 2013

How Elephants Use Their Tusks

 Story from Amara Conservation Founder/Executive Director Lori Bergemann

Elephant tusks are elongated incisors and are essentially no different from other teeth. One third of the tusk is actually hidden from view, embedded deep in the elephant’s head. This part of the tusk is a pulp cavity made up of tissue, blood and nerves.

The visible, ivory part of the tusk is made of dentine with an outer layer of enamel. Elephant ivory is unique as when it’s viewed in cross-sections it reveals criss-crossed lines that form a series of diamond shapes.

Elephant’s tusks never stop growing so some old bulls display enormous examples. However, the average size of tusks has decreased over the past hundred years because hunting elephants for their ivory has resulted in the ‘big tusk gene’ becoming increasingly rare.

Elephants use their tusks to ward off potential predators like the lion (although lions will only ever attack young or juvenile elephants) or in sparring with other elephants. Male elephants, whose tusks are longer, use them in battles against sexual competitors or to attract the interest of females.

Tusk uses also include digging for water, stripping the bark off trees, foraging for food and essential minerals, moving or lifting heavy objects, and as a place to rest a tired trunk.

Elephants are born with milk teeth that fall out after about a year, much like human teeth. The permanent tusks don't start to appear beyond the elephant's lips until it is about two or three years old. Elephant tusks grow as much as seven inches per year, and can grow to up to 10 feet long, although it is rare to see an elephant with such long tusks.

Elephants often wear down or break their tusks over the years, generally preferring one tusk over the other (similar to being being right or left handed in humans). The preferred tusk, known as the master tusk, is usually the shorter one, because it is worn down from constant use. 

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