The Anatomy of an Elephant ~ The Elephant's Hair

March 17, 2021
Khanyisa's hairy albino chin!

Elephants are anything but hirsute, but their sparse, strategically-placed hair is as important to them as is the head-to-toe covering preferred by many other mammals.

Keratin is the fibrous structural protein that is the main component of hair, fur, wool and even pangolin scales and this hairiness is one of the defining characteristics of all mammals.

Camouflage, protection from the elements and attraction of mates are some of the possible explanations for how the zebra got its stripes but the African elephant has opted for a few bristles instead of a thick hair pattern. One theory regarding zebra stripes is that they confuse the biting tsetse flies, but the African elephant utilises its tail, with a significant clump of hairs at its end, to swish these tiny annoyances away.

In murky waters the bristle-like hairs on the snouts of the Amazon river dolphins allow them to forage in the muddy sediment while the tip of an African elephants remarkable trunk has super-sensitive whiskers that are individually attached to nerves that travel the length of the trunk before feeding into the brain. Sensitive to the slightest touch, the hairs make the trunk about 10 times more sensitive than a human finger.

Elephants, much like our domestic cats, have poor eye sight and their whiskers enable them to feel rather than see what is at the tip of their noses. Whether it is the juicy fruit of the marula tree, fresh new leaves between the thorns of an acacia tree or the stumbling elephant calf bumbling about beneath the massive members of its herd, the African elephant uses the hairs on its trunk to navigate through the world around it.

While elephants are not very hairy creatures, their tails certainly are an exception to this rule, with thick, coarse, black tail hairs that can reach a length of up to 100cm – all the better to scatter those flies.

The hairs that elephants do have tend to be black but in the case of albino calf, Khanyisa, her tail, whiskers and body hairs lack any pigment and are a light blondish hue. Read more about tails here >

Khanyisa's hairy little albino trunk!

While many mammals use their fur as protection from the baking African sun, as insulation from freezing winds and even as raincoats, the African elephants fine covering of hairs acts as natural radiators that allow the world's largest land mammal to shed heat.

Research has shown, perhaps counterintuitively, that the individual and well-spaced hairs assist convective heat loss and therefore thermoregulation by up to 23% which is essential in African elephants who do not sweat.

Because of their size to skin ratio, the African elephant has come up with some unique cooling features and, when not enjoying a roll in the mud, the hairs 'lift' the heat from their skin and allow any breeze to waft it away. While a thick coat would keep the heat in, a more threadbare cover actively disperses body heat and, perhaps, compensates for the inability to sweat. Definitely a case of less is more...

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