Once people get beyond the unique trunk of the elephant, they may find themselves wondering, why do elephants have big ears? Elephant ears are not just big - they can be quite enormous. As with all the other parts of the elephant body, there’s a good reason that they’ve evolved to have their current physique. Here’s exactly why elephants have such big ears.
Elephant’s large ears have several purposes, which vary depending on the type of elephant and its terrain. There are three species of elephant - Asian elephants, African Savannah elephants, and African Forest elephants. While all three species have large ears, there is a difference in size and shape. Both types of African elephants have similar ears, with other physical and geographic factors that differentiate the two.
African elephants have larger ears that bloom out from their head higher up and trail down quite low, like a fan. Asian elephants, on the other hand, have smaller, more rounded ears. You can easily determine if you’re looking at an African or Asian elephant by looking at their ears. African elephants have ears that loosely resemble the continent of Africa, while Asian elephant ears are said to look like the shape of India.
The most important job of an elephant’s ears has to do with temperature and the size of an elephant's ears correlates to the heat that dissipates through them. African elephants live in a sunnier, hotter climate than Asian elephants, which is why they need bigger ears. Asian elephants may have smaller ears and live in cooler climates, but they use them for the same purpose. Their ears are responsible for regulating their temperature, which is called thermoregulation.
Elephant ears are full of large blood vessels, which you can actually see on the back of their ears. As blood circulates through the vessels in the ear, it cools down and then circulates into the rest of the body, which helps cool the entire elephant down. You may have also seen elephants batting and flapping their ears - this isn’t just to get rid of pesky bugs. They actually use their ears like fans, which promotes blood circulation to the ears and allows their entire body to cool down.
Elephants sometimes spray water on their ears, as a means to cool down the blood in the vessels before it circulates to the rest of the body. They also sometimes stand to face the wind and hold their ears outward, using the natural breeze as a way to cool their ears and the rest of the body down.
Since elephants only have sweat glands on their feet, just above the toenails, they depend on their ears for temperature regulation. If elephants did have more sweat glands, perspiration could cause dehydration, as they live in such warm climates. The adaptation of using the ears to cool the body actually benefits them, as it doesn’t cause any dehydration.
Although elephants can speak to each other through trumpeting and vibrational sound, they also use body language to communicate. Their ears are a big part of their body language. When elephants flare their ears out, it can signal a warning or excitement. They may use this signal to scare off threats and challenges, or to show each other their enthusiasm.
Elephants are also known to hold their ears out. This signals that they are listening, or focused on something - kind of like how you might tilt your ear toward a sound to hear better. Elephants in the wild and in captivity use their ears as signals in this way, which allows us to communicate with and understand them.
Of course, elephants also use their ears for hearing like any other animal. Elephants have excellent hearing, which is another benefit of their size. They can listen for threats, utilizing their excellent hearing to increase their chances of survival. It has been suggested that the size of their ear can also help to direct sounds into the ear, which may also aid with hearing.
So - why do elephants have big ears? Asian or African elephant, the ear’s predominant role is to act like a personal air conditioner. Since the African elephant’s ear can be six feet long and five feet across, it’s no wonder these animals have been deemed gentle giants! Despite their size, they face many threats - from habitat loss to poaching. That’s why, for all replicas and other merchandise sold, Elephant Parade donates 20% of net profits to elephant conservation. To learn more about Elephant Parade, read our story and FAQ.