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Calf, 3 weeks old
A three-week-old calf sleeping at the feet of the mother.

Calf suckling
The mammary glands of the female elephant are between her front legs. 

Wild male visiting the Elephant Breeding Centre of Chitwan, Nepal
A large adult male. This wild male was photographed at the Elephant Breeding Centre of Chitwan, Nepal where he occasionally visits captive females.

Old female
A 60-year-old captive female.
Life history

The life cycle of elephants is similar to that of humans. They reach maturity at about the same age as we do, and can sometimes live for more than 70 years.

Early years

Elephants are among the few animals that, similarly to humans, have a prolonged "childhood": a learning period of many years. The difference between newborn and adult brain size, in proportion to the body size, is also one of the greatest among animals. The intensive braing growth during early years goes hand in hand with the fact that elephants acquire a large part of their life skills by observing others and experimenting by themselves.

When a calf is born, one of the skills it still has to learn is how to use the trunk. With practice, it will become an intricate precision "hand" for many uses, but at first it only is a confusingly dangling thing that gets in the way.

At the age of half a year, a calf starts to nibble some solid food but is still fully dependent on the mother's milk. In the wild, an elephant calf suckles the mother's milk for about five years. The mother weans the calf off milk gradually, and the calf still continues to live with the mother and other close female relatives. Male calves stay with their mothers until adolescence, females usually for life.

Adolescence and adulthood

Young females reach adolescence at around 10 years of age, give or take a few years. Males reach adolescence a bit later, at approximately 12 to 15 years.

An adolescent male leaves his mother's family group and joins other adolescent males. Usually he will still occasionally meet his mother and other family group members for the rest of his life.

A female stays in her mother's group into adulthood. When her own calf is born, the other females in the group assist in looking after the calf.

Elephants are behaviourally mature at approximately 18 years of age. They still grow slightly more after this, reaching the full adult height by the age of 40 years.

Growing old

Elephants can sometimes live for more than 70 years. In captivity, the average lifespan is shorter than in the wild. Elderly elephants are easy to recognize by their deeply sunken temples. The skin gets wrinkled even in Asian elephants, which otherwise have rather smooth skin. African elephants have wrinkled skin already before growing old.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere