From their floppy ears to their giant trunks and their truly enormous size, there is a lot about this elephant that stands out. But elephant tusks are a valuable tool and a potential danger to these gentle giants. The desire for ivory has made elephants popular targets for illegal poaching, and this can have devastating consequences for their populations. Here’s everything you need to know about elephant tusks, from what they are made of, what purpose they serve the elephant for, to why they have become such popular fashion symbols around the world.
What are elephant tusks?
A tusk is simply a tooth that extends beyond the mouth, and like any other evolutionary trait, they remain because they manage to be a useful auxiliary tool for the creature. Elephants aren’t the only mammals to have tusks. Elephants are distantly related to the tusks of woolly mammoths that existed millions of years ago, but tusks can also be found in walruses, pigs, and rare narwhals. In most animals, canines are an example of elongated canines – teeth that are used to tear food apart. But due to the fact that elephants are herbivores, their tusks are made up of elongated incisors – teeth that are used to grind food. In fact, elephants have no fangs at all.
How do elephants use tusks?
While the use of tools was once thought to be a hallmark of humans and animals, it has become apparent over the past few decades that this is not the case at all. Elephants are one of the most difficult tool-using animals on the planet, thanks to their large brains and combination of tusks and trunk.
Elephants also use their fangs as weapons and protective tools. The elephant’s trunk is one of the most important tools for interacting with the world and one of the most sensitive parts of its body. As it is used to eat, breathe, and drink water, the protrusions on its trunk expand to protect it from attack. And just as males use their horns to vie for status among their fellow elephants, male elephants use their tusks to intimidate rivals and sometimes fight for territorial or breeding rights.
But the most common and important role that tusks play is as a tool for foraging. Elephants use their tusks to strip the bark from trees, which can then be eaten, providing an important balance of fiber in the elephant’s diet. But these intelligent creatures can also use their fangs to forage in more creative ways. Using their tusk as a shovel, elephants can find water under dry river beds – and they can even dig to find vital minerals and salts for a balanced diet.
These animals are capable of using their fangs as tools, but they also have the rare ability to create their own tools, and fangs play a crucial role in this process. It has long been known that elephants use twigs to ward off flies and fan themselves in the heat, but researchers have found that they are indeed able to regulate these twigs in the wild to make them more effective. They use their tusks and legs to strip and adjust the size of the branches. And in many cases, canines can be used to carry heavy loads from one place to another. Tusks are a valuable tool, but the elephant manages to make them significantly more valuable thanks to its impressive intelligence.
What are elephant tusks made of?
If you understand the anatomy of the human tooth, you have a good understanding of the structure of an elephant’s tusk. The structure here is basically the same, with four parts making up the anatomy of the tusk. The outer layer of enamel serves as a protective coating for the deeper parts of the tooth. Dentin forms the next layer and conveys feelings of deeper nerve endings, such as warmth and cold. A layer of cement holds the tusk in place and prevents it from loosening. The pulp forms the very center of the tusk and is a bundle of nerve endings, blood vessels and connective tissue. The pulp distributes the nutrients and minerals needed to keep the tusk strong and healthy.
Essentially, these structures are built in the same way as a human tooth, but the elephant’s unique physiology ensures that there are differences. The fact that the tusk protrudes from the body and is used as a rough instrument means that the enamel often tends to wear out quickly. Just like most people have a preferred hand, an elephant has a preferred tusk, which can be determined by who has the most worn enamel. And while the part of the tusk that we see is in itself scary, it is just a part of the entire tusk, most of which is buried deep in the mouth of the elephant. Unlike teeth, canines continue to grow over time. You can even estimate an elephant’s age roughly by comparing the size of its tusk to other animals of its age and species.
Why are elephant tusks so valuable?
Chemically, there is no difference between a tooth and a tusk, but ivory continues to be big business – and what drives the illegal elephant poaching trade. On the contrary, its value boils down largely to cultural status and rarity. The difficulty of hunting an elephant in the old days – coupled with the fact that elephants are found in relatively limited geographic density – meant that ivory was valuable. And the fact that ivory is soft, pliable and easy to make has made it a valuable exotic commodity the world over. The extensive trade in African ivory flourished in the 15th and 19th centuries, but they continued to be a source of popular luxury goods into the 20th century. Ivory has been used to make piano keys as far back as the 1980s. And while significant steps had been taken to ban trade by the end of the century, some countries were slower to accept the move than others. In particular, China has been one of the largest consumers of ivory. Although the sale of ivory was banned in 2017, the growing young and wealthy generation recognizes the appeal of ivory as a status symbol.
Can an elephant survive after removing its fangs?
People can survive after pulling out a tooth, but the situation with elephant tusks is much more serious. Since the tusk is deeply embedded in the elephant’s skull, it is much more difficult to extract it completely. While it is technically possible to calm the elephant and remove its tusk, it will be difficult and painful as the nerve runs right through the tusk.
However, poachers have neither the means nor interest in such delicacies. Elephants can still be incredibly deadly creatures, and it’s much easier to just kill an elephant and then grab its fangs. Even if it were a painless procedure, many elephants rely on their fangs to gain the necessary survival skills. Losing a tusk is like losing access to your arm.
Do all elephants have tusks?
While many elephants use their tusks as valuable tools and weapons, not all elephants even have tusks. Traditionally, male and female African elephants have tusks, while only some Asian male elephants have protruding tusks. Smaller tusks can be found in both female and male Asian elephants. But in both species of elephants, the number of members without tusks increases. Poachers kill elephants with the most prominent trunks, they take them out of their spawning grounds. Today, half of African female elephants are born without tusks at all, and this trend has been observed in males as well. This is a recent, rapid and alarming development, but researchers believe that the absence of canines may become the dominant standard.
Do poachers threaten other animals with fangs?
Elephants are not the only animals hunted for the ivory of their tusks. Walrus bone was an essential component in many indigenous cultures that relied on their meat for survival, and it is speculated that the Vikings may have driven Icelandic walruses to extinction due to their desire for ivory. Throughout history, poaching has produced ivory for a variety of whale species. There is even a thriving – albeit much smaller – market for warthog tusks in the tourism industries of South and East Africa. And while hippos lack traditional tusks, their prominent tusks are also a popular target for illegal poachers.
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