Africa 2017

Eating-Elephants Vlog

Eating elephants. Elephants eating. Say what? Watch and see! The video is less than five minutes long.

If the embedded video doesn’t work for you, you can watch on YouTube. You may want to do that anyway for a bigger image.

More on the Boro River

As I mentioned in the previous post, we got crazy close to some of these elephants—far closer than we would have gotten had Mike and I been on our own—that’s the benefit of traveling with experienced and knowledgeable friends. But the Boro River is narrow—at least it was on this day—so in some cases, closeness couldn’t be avoided. And, of course, we simply moved slowly and quietly and paid attention to the responses of the elephants, which is what we do around any wildlife. If the animals showed signs of discomfort, we moved on. If they didn’t care, we hung out and watched a while.

Man and elephant, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

It’s Right There! And it’s HUGE!

Up Close with an Elephant’s Trunk

Even though we were so close, I spent time watching the elephants’ mouths and trunks through binoculars. Those trunks are incredible! An elephant trunk has over 40,000 muscles, which scientists somehow divide further into 150,000 individual units. Compare that to human bodies that have a total of just 639 muscles—and no trunks at all! A human hand, which is wonderfully dexterous and maybe the most comparable thing we have to a trunk as it’s used here, does its work with just 34 muscles.

See? Calling a trunk “incredible” is not exaggerating.

Elephant trunk grabbing lilies, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

I’ll take this batch, thank you.

What we got to see was the trunk selecting batches of grass and/or lilies under water, yanking them out of the earth, aligning them, further preparing them by swishing and slapping them in the water and against their trunks, and then placing them into the mouth. I wonder how often an elephant bites its trunk. You know it happens, just like we bite the insides of our mouths.

Sometimes a trunk stripped roots off a grass bunch or leaves off lily stalks. The elephant at the end of the video ate the whole lily plant, roots, stalk, leaves, and all. Obviously, elephants have personal preferences, but that’s hardly surprising. Show me an animal that doesn’t.

Elephant Teeth

I’ve read that the “washing” is to remove dirt and rocks. Maybe that action is motivated by taste: Elephants don’t like the taste of dirt. Or maybe it’s hardwired: Elephants that do this survive and pass on their genes. Or maybe it’s something else: Cows like bulls that wash their food? Okay, I’m pushing it with that one. šŸ™‚ One result of the action, though, is that the elephants’ teeth are not worn down by grinding dirt and rocks while eating.

Elephant swinging grass, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Quit playing with your food!

Elephant teeth are also interesting. They generally rotate through 26 teeth during life. Two incisors, the ripping and tearing teeth, become tusks; the rest are molars or pre-molars, flat chewing teeth, used to grind vegetable matter. Four molars (or pre-molars) occupy the mouth at a time, two on top, two on bottom, so that means an ellie cycles through six sets of four molars in its lifetime.

I’m confused about what the “pre-molars” are. It seems to me that they refer to the first three sets of molars, but in a human mouth, pre-molars are present with the molars, in front of them. My understanding is that the first three sets of molars (12 teeth) take an elephant through the first 9–15 years of life. The latter three sets of teeth, then, must last the elephant the rest of its life, which could be another 50–60 years. They can’t afford to wear out their teeth chewing dirt, sand, and gravel.

Unlike human teeth, which grow upward and downward out of the jaws, elephant teeth grow forward from the back of the mouth. It’s like a conveyor belt of teeth.

Digging Up Roots

Some elephants used their feet to dig out the roots of the lilies. We could see them shuffling their front feet while grabbing with their trunks, and then pulling up a wad of white roots, like a pom-pom. I would expect them to use their tusks to dig, too, but maybe they don’t want to dunk their heads in this case. They certainly dunk them when swimming and cooling off, so it’s not unheard of.

Humans here also harvest lily roots, which are called “tswee.” I’d like to try them, but we’ve never seen them available in a store. We’ll have to look for them elsewhere.

Do you suppose that humans saw elephants harvesting the lily roots and decided to try it? Or might elephants have seen humans harvesting lily roots and decided to try it? Maybe an elephant scared away a human while she was harvesting lily roots and got to eat the ones she left behind, discovering they were delicious. Or do you suppose humans and elephants decided to try lily roots independent of each other, both concluding they were delicious? So many questions! And I have no answers.

Elephant in spray, Boro River, Okavango Delta, Botswana


Blog Comments

I love it when you comment and ask questions here! Thank you for that! I’m sorry I was slow to respond to the last batch; apparently, I turned off email notifications for comments, but I think I’ve turned them on again, so I should see them sooner. And I’ll just pay more attention—or Mike will, anyway; he’s good at that. If there’s something in particular you’d like to know or see, don’t hesitate to ask.

Once you’ve had a comment approved here on this blog, your future comments will appear immediately, but I do have to approve your first one.

Many of you already know (Allen, I’m looking at you), but I should say it more than I do: Most photo credits go to Mike. He’s King Photographer, and he has sold photos professionally to the likes of National Geographic and Sierra Club, but it’s not a career he pursues. Some photos will be mine, but even then, at least a little credit goes to Mike because he taught me all I know about photography. I often shoot video while he shoots stills, but one of the clips in this series is from a video he shot. I don’t distinguish who shot what; sometimes we don’t know, and we simply don’t care. We tend to think of it this way: Words are mine; photos are Mike’s. But, really, you can’t be 100% sure in either case.

7 replies »

  1. That was incredible! And I’m sure I will be back to watch it again. I was intrigued by the way they slapped their food around and wondered why. You answered that perfectly. I never knew that about the teeth, either. What a fantastic experience!

  2. Fabulous video! That last elephant eating those tasty lilies reminded me so much of slurping down a plate of pasta which somehow seems to be one long string!

  3. Very cool, Jen. Great video & an interesting read. I got close to elephants (in zoos) while on video jobs many years ago. Incredible & beautiful animals!

  4. Great video! Loved watching up close and seeing him grabbing veg with his trunk just as if they were fingers. Iā€™m not sure what I would do with all the extra muscles but now I want them to find out.

  5. Linda, the Okavango Delta is a huge area that encompasses land with different designations. The Moremi Game Reserve, which is a National Park, is in the Okavango Delta, but there are private concessions in the Delta, too. The whole Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.