Elephants are among the smartest, largest animals on the planet. With all that size and brain power, it should come as no surprise that making a baby elephant is no easy task. In fact, elephants have so much developing to do in the womb that they actually have the longest pregnancies of any creature on Earth. That’s right, the elephant gestation period is the longest of any animal, even longer than rhinoceros, blue whales, and humans.
Let’s take a look at just how long an elephant’s gestation period is, and learn a little more about elephants themselves along the way.
There are two extant species of elephants; the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The African elephant is the largest land mammal on Earth, the Asian elephant is slightly smaller. Both elephant gestation periods are extremely long, but the African elephant actually has the longest gestation of any animal in the world. Scientists worked for years to figure out why elephants stay pregnant for so long, and how.
Let’s take a closer look at elephants and their years-long pregnancies.
Appearance and Size
African elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth; they can reach over 13 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh more than ten tons. They have gray, leathery skin, large, flapping ears, and two projecting tusks. But, perhaps their most distinctive feature is their long trunk, which they use to grasp food and manipulate objects.
Asian elephants aren’t quite as big as African elephants; they grow to about nine feet tall at the shoulder and weigh around four tons. Like the African elephant, the Asian elephant has a long trunk, but only males have long tusks. They also have smaller ears than African elephants, and a higher, more pronounced forehead.
Range and Habitat
African elephants live in disjunct ranges across Africa. Historically, they occupied much of the continent. But today, due to habitat loss and fragmentation, they live in just a fraction of their former range. African elephants are habitat generalists, with some populations favoring wooded areas, while others favor grasslands and savannahs.
Asian elephants are the largest land mammals in Asia. Historically, they occupied the entirety of the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, among others. Like the African elephant, today’s Asian elephants occupy a tiny fraction of their former homelands. These elephants are primarily forest-dwelling.
How Long is an Elephant Gestation?
Elephants have the longest gestation of any creature on the planet. Asian elephant gestation periods last anywhere from 18-22 months, while African elephant gestations last a full 22 months. That’s only two months shy of a two-year pregnancy! Female elephants begin ovulating between 10-12 years old, while bulls don’t become sexually mature until around 14 or 15. Often, young bulls do not get the chance to mate until they’re much older and have moved up in the complex social hierarchy.
Why are Elephants Pregnant for so Long?
In general, the bigger the animal, the longer the pregnancy. But, why? Larger animals need more time to grow, and since they’re so large, they also tend to live long lives, which longer pregnancies coincide with. But, that’s not all there is to elephant gestation.
Scientists have found that one of the biggest reasons elephants are pregnant for so long is their big brains. Elephants are born with all the brain cells they’ll ever need, 250 billion of them, to be exact. It takes a lot of development, and time, to grow those big brains. That’s why elephants stay pregnant for at least 18 months, so that, when they’re born, they’re ready to start learning all the things an elephant needs to know to survive.
Elephant Gestation and Conservation
Elephants are some of the most magnificent, and endangered, creatures on our planet. Their huge bodies and big brains make them especially vulnerable to one thing: extinction. If a herd of elephants disappears, it takes a very long time to replace them. A single elephant’s gestation lasts nearly two years. After that, calves stay with their mothers for up to ten years, which means the mom only has one calf every 4-5 years. Elephants are slow to reproduce and take their time growing up, which makes them especially vulnerable to extinction.
Can Elephants Have Twins?
Twinning, or, having two babies per pregnancy, is extremely rare in elephants. Elephant gestations result in twins about 1% of the time. Unfortunately, even when both calves survive birth, both almost never make it to adulthood. The reason for this is simple; baby elephants take a tremendous amount of nourishment to thrive and grow. Mother elephants simply can’t make enough milk to feed two hungry calves. In recent years, some twins have been rescued by elephant rescue organizations, who raise them and rerelease them into semi-wild conditions when they’re old enough.
Which Animal has the Shortest Gestation?
If the elephant gestation is the longest gestation, then which animal has the shortest gestation? That title belongs to none other than the Virginian opossum, which stays pregnant for a maximum of 12 days. Opossums are marsupials, which means that at birth, their young enter a sort of exterior womb known as a pouch. They still have a lot of developing to do, especially after such a short time in the womb. That’s why marsupials have some of the shortest gestations of any animal—because they have an extra womb on the outside where babies can finish growing.
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