Elephants are among the largest animals on the planet, so you’d naturally assume that their teeth are quite large, too. However, just by looking at an elephant, you wouldn’t be able to see them! Aside from their massive tusks, they appear at first glance to be toothless. So, do elephants have teeth?
Furthermore, how many teeth do elephants have? What do they look like, and how large (or small) are they? Let’s take an in-depth look at elephant dentition below!
What Kind of Teeth Do Elephants Have?
The main determinant of an animal’s teeth shape, number, and size is its diet. After all, animals need certain kinds of teeth to consume different types of food. Flat teeth like molars are best for grinding up plant matter, while sharp teeth like canines are meant for tearing through meat and flesh.
Elephants are entirely herbivorous, other than the occasional insect or bird’s egg they manage to accidentally swallow while munching on large amounts of plant matter. With this information in mind, it isn’t surprising that today’s elephants have only molar and premolar teeth (aside from their tusks, which are actually modified incisors–more on that later!).
These molars grow in from the back of the elephant’s mouth rather than from the top and bottom jaws like humans’ teeth. Needless to say, their molars and premolars are enormous! Each tooth is roughly the size and shape of a brick and weighs around 4.5 pounds.
Elephants also have textured ridges on their molars to help further break down plant material. African elephants’ molar ridges are diamond-shaped, while Asian elephants have more cylindrical-shaped ridges.
How Many Teeth Do Elephants Have?
In total, both African and Asian elephants have 26 teeth at any given time. 12 of their teeth are wide, flat molars, and 12 are slightly narrower and more pointed premolars. The remaining two teeth are actually their tusks!
When a baby elephant is born, they only have milk teeth and four small molars. The milk teeth are known as “baby tusks” and are replaced by an adult set when the elephant is roughly two years old. The molars also are replaced by an adult set at around the same age.
Elephant teeth are constantly being worn down by the huge amounts of leaves, grasses, fruits, and branches these gentle giants must eat for around 16 to 20 hours a day to keep their energy levels up. As a result, new teeth are always growing in to replace the old ones. Whenever a molar or premolar wears down or falls out, a new one grows in from the back and replaces it.
Thanks to this process, elephants go through six total sets of teeth in one lifetime. That’s around 150 teeth!
Are Elephant Tusks Actually Teeth?
As we briefly touched on earlier, elephant tusks are, in fact, teeth! They are enlarged incisors that help elephants with ripping bark and branches from trees, digging holes to find water, lifting and moving heavy objects to access food, and even defending themselves from predators.
Additionally, male elephants tend to have larger tusks, which they often use to intimidate competing males during mating season. They will even use their tusks to fight with other males over territory and food.
Interestingly, while elephants don’t necessarily need their tusks to survive, they are a lot weaker and more vulnerable to various hazards without them. Strangely, some female African elephants in Mozambique have recently started rapidly evolving to have no tusks at all from birth! Researchers believe this trait is a defense mechanism intended to protect the elephants from excessive ivory poaching in the area.
Do Elephants Ever Run Out Of Teeth?
An elephant’s teeth grow constantly throughout its life–to an extent. Once an elephant has gone through all six sets of teeth, no more will grow back in their place.
For most elephants, that’s usually more than enough teeth to get them through their long lifespans. However, tooth loss is the leading cause of death for elephants over 60-70 years of age. Without their molar teeth, elephants are unable to chew and break down food properly. So, in some cases, six sets of teeth just aren’t enough.
Additionally, elephants only get one pair of tusks to last their entire lives. Although tusks grow continuously, they are prone to all kinds of damage from heavy use over time. If its tusks become damaged or are removed by poachers, an elephant becomes far more vulnerable to predators and is much less efficient at accessing the huge amounts of plant matter it needs to survive.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Roman_Baiadin
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