When you look at elephants, the first thing you inevitably notice is their size - they are the largest living land mammals on the planet, after all. Less noticeable is the difference between male and female elephants. While it is a challenge to tell the genders apart, especially as the genitals are usually hidden between the legs, there are several key differences between the two. Here are some visual and behavioural factors to help you identify who’s who.
One of the most obvious ways to tell the difference between male and female elephants is their size. As with most animal species, the males are bigger than the females. Full-grown males are quite noticeably larger than their full-grown female counterparts.
Although size varies with each type of elephant, females are, on average, about eight feet (2.4 meters) tall from shoulder to toe. Males stand two feet taller, again on average, at 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) tall from shoulder to toe.
The biggest difference can be seen in their weight, with males weighing close to double that of female elephants. As you might expect, the difference in weight also gives male elephants a curvier, wider build. Compare the size difference between the genders and types of elephants below.
Despite the sizeable difference, using size alone to determine an elephant’s gender poses some challenges. For example, herds of juveniles and pre-adolescents are still growing, making their size less impactful. Elephants roaming alone make it almost impossible to tell the difference between males and female elephants.
The features of an elephant can also give you clues as to its gender. Both male and female African elephants have visible tusks, however, the tusks of males tend to be longer. Male and female Asian elephants can have visible tusks, called tushes, though female Asian elephants sometimes do not have tusks. Unfortunately, this isn’t a great indicator of gender - sometimes male Asian elephants don’t grow tusks either. This depends on their subspecies and region.
An elephant’s head shape can provide further clues. In general, male elephant heads are broader between the eyes and forehead. Female elephants tend to have a more steep angle on the forehead, giving them a blockier forehead. This is especially true for adult elephants, as younger elephants tend to have less pronounced differences, making it more challenging to tell the genders apart.
Adult female elephants have two breasts, or mammary glands, located between their front legs. When a female becomes pregnant or is nursing her young, her mammary glands become more prominent, remaining more noticeable even after she’s done breastfeeding. This is a telltale difference between male and female elephants.
Elephants are incredibly intelligent, and people have been studying their behaviour for many years. While there isn’t much difference between male and female elephant personalities, there is a difference in how strongly their personality traits are expressed. For example, a study from the University of Turku, Finland, found that Asian male elephants express themselves with more aggressiveness, while female elephants are more agreeable. Male elephants have also been shown to be less sociable.
This makes sense, as male elephants tend to roam on their own or in a small group. They leave their breeding herd around age 13 or 14, when puberty sets in. Meanwhile, females generally stay strongly bonded, remaining in breeding herds with their relatives in the natal herd. These herds are also usually female-led, with one elder female guiding the rest.
Now that you know the difference between male and female elephants, can spot all the differences in the photos in this article?