Nav: Home

Change of teeth causes yo-yo effect in elephants' weight

January 09, 2019

The teeth of most mammals, including humans, are only replaced once in a lifetime, when the milk teeth give way to the permanent teeth. This one change is enough to adapt to the increasing size of the jaw. But elephants increase greatly in size and weight over the course of their lives - from a starting weight of 100 kilograms to several tons in adulthood. One single change of teeth would not be enough for the enormous growth of the jaw.

Elephants' teeth change five times

That's why the teeth of elephants are replaced a total of five times over their lifespan. On each side of the jaw they have only one single tooth in use at a time which is slowly pushed forwards by a new bigger tooth out of the mouth, breaking off in pieces. If you look inside an elephant's mouth you will see either only one single tooth or pieces of the old tooth behind which part of the new tooth is pushing through, a process that is called molar progression.

As a result of this process, the elephants' chewing surface gets bigger when two teeth are present on one side at the same time, and then smaller again when there is only one tooth on each side. For that reason there are times when it is easier for the animals to eat more or chew the same amount more finely, and hence increase the intake of digestible food.

Europe-wide weight checks

Researchers at the Vetsuisse Faculty of the University of Zurich have now observed weight fluctuations in elephants living in zoos, which can be explained by these changes of teeth. "We actually wanted to find out whether zoo elephants that have offspring are lighter than those who have not reproduced," says Marcus Clauss of the Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife. To this end, PhD candidate Christian Schiffmann visited nearly every zoo in Europe and recorded the weight of the elephants.

Cyclical weight fluctuations correlate with change of teeth

The researchers then noticed a pattern. The animals continually gained weight from childhood to adulthood, and then their bodyweight fluctuated by 300 kilograms in long cycles of around a hundred months. "At first we thought it might have something to do with the seasons or with reproduction," explains Christian Schiffmann. "But the cycle is a lot longer than one year, and we found the same pattern in groups that were not reproducing. The only other plausible explanation was the unusual tooth change process in elephants."

For elephants living in the wild, it is unlikely that this phenomenon would be observed: As elephants reproduce all year round but do experience seasonal fluctuations in the amount of food available, animals of various ages and tooth stages have access to differing quality and quantity of food. The weight of these elephants is therefore influenced by other factors alongside the change of teeth. It is only in zoos, where food availability is comparatively stable, that the pattern can be clearly observed. For Clauss, this study is therefore a superb example of how research into zoo animals can provide new biological findings that would not be possible by observing animals in the wild.
-end-


University of Zurich

Related Elephants Articles:

Elephants' 'body awareness' adds to increasing evidence of their intelligence
Asian elephants are able to recognize their bodies as obstacles to success in problem-solving, further strengthening evidence of their intelligence and self-awareness, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge.
African elephants may be the shortest-sleeping mammals
African elephants in the wild sleep an average of two hours a day and regularly go nearly two days without sleep, according to a study published March 1, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paul Manger from University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and colleagues.
Study reveals 'nightmare' for Central Africa's forest elephants
Forest elephants living in an area that had been considered a sanctuary in the Central African country of Gabon are rapidly being picked off by illegal poachers, who are primarily coming from the bordering country of Cameroon.
Poaching drives 80 percent decline in elephants in key preserve
Forest elephant populations in one of Central Africa's largest sanctuaries have declined between 78% and 81% because of poaching, a new Duke-led study finds.
Aerial surveys of elephants and other mammals may underestimate numbers
As lead researchers in Africa's recent Great Elephant Census, wildlife ecologists Curtice Griffin and Scott Schlossberg at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also evaluated elephant counting methods in the wild.
More Elephants News and Elephants Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...