It’s a question that has puzzled scientists, zookeepers and animal lovers alike: Why is it that humans are so fascinated by the calves of elephants?
The answer may lie in our own biology. Elephants are mammals like us. And we’re drawn to live things, especially animals with babies. It’s true for other species too; just think about how many people stop their cars on the roads when they see deer fawns cross the street or baby seals playing on a beach.
Baby elephants are playful and cute, and they make a lot of noise. They also tend to stay close to their mothers. One mind-blowing fact about baby elephants is that almost all of them are born at night, most likely because it’s harder for predators to find them.
Fast Facts: Baby Elephants
- Average gestation period: 18-22 months
- Birth weight: about 250 pounds
- Height: about 3 feet tall
- Almost all calves (99%) are born at night
- Calves are born with curly black or red hair on their foreheads
- Calves drink about 3 gallons (about 11 liters) of milk a day
An introduction to baby elephants
The baby elephant weigh an average of 115 pounds (52 kg) at birth, but can be as heavy as 160 pounds (72 kg). Its gestation period is 22 months long with females usually giving birth to one calf at a time after a pregnancy lasting between 21 or 22 months. Baby elephants are cared for by their mothers and other females in the herd for up to five years (learn more about an Elephant’s herd social behaviours). They suckle on their mother’s milk for up to two years, and will continue to drink her milk until they are about eight or nine months old.
In the wild, baby elephants learn to fend for themselves at about 18 months old. At this age, the elephant baby will start to eat vegetation (read our article about what Elephants eat to learn more) and learn to follow their herd. At this age they are also able to travel long distances with the herd. In captivity, baby elephants are often weaned from their mother’s milk at an earlier age, usually six to eight months old. This is because they are kept in smaller enclosures than those found in the wild and need to be taught how to eat solid food.
The life of a baby elephant is filled with plenty of new experiences. They are constantly learning from their mother and others of the herd. Baby elephants are also very playful and love to play with each other. They will often trump (make a noise that sounds like a trumpet) and flap their ears when they are happy or excited.
What are baby elephants like at birth and how do they grow up?
At birth, baby elephants have thin, curly black hair on their foreheads. Most babies are born during the night, when it is harder for predators to find them. Calves drink around 3 gallons (11 liters) of milk a day and will continue to drink their mother’s milk until they are about eight or nine months old.
Baby elephants are nearly blind when they are born and rely on their trunk, mothers and other females in the herd to guide them. They will recognise their mother’s touch, sound and smell. They learn to suckle from their mothers within the first hour of being born. By the time they are about seven or eight months old, they will start to eat solid food, mainly plants just like the grown ups of the herd.
A baby elephant will lose their tusks within the first few months of being born. They will start to grow their tusks again when they are about two years old.
First few weeks of a baby calf’ life
In the first few weeks of a baby calf’s life, it will stay close to its mother. The calf will learn to suckle from its mother and drink her milk. It will also learn to follow the herd and do “elephants walk” with them.
Do baby elephants ever have twins or other multiple births?
Almost all calves are born one at a time, but there have been cases of twins being born. It is not fully understood why this happens, but it is thought that it might be due to the mother’s diet or stress levels. Some believe that multiple births might occur because the mother’s body is trying to increase the chances of survival for at least one of her calves.
Differences between baby elephants of the African elephant and the Asian elephant
The calves of African elephants and Asian elephants differ in a few ways. African elephants have thinner and curlier black hair on their foreheads than Asian elephants. Calves of African elephants are also usually born heavier than Asian elephant calves. Additionally, baby African elephants start drinking their mother’s milk at a younger age (about one hour after being born) than baby Asian elephants (who start drinking their mother’s milk at around three days old).
African and Asian elephants will treat their babies quite differently. African elephant mothers are very protective of their calves and will keep them close by. Asian elephant mothers, on the other hand, allow their calves to roam more and play with other calves in the herd.
Elephant calves love to play
If you’ve ever seen elephant babies you know that they are real jokers! At first, they don’t really know what to do with their trunks which can be extremely joyful to watch. They’ll swing them around, suck their trunk (like a pacifier!) and sometimes even accidentally step on them.
They’ll also chase each other, trumpet and flap their ears in delight. It’s a really cute sight to behold! Just like humans, young elephants can often be seen mimicking female elephants or other elders of the herd. In captivity, baby elephants have been seen playing with toys given to them, just like adult elephants.
FAQ on baby elephants
A baby elephant is called a calf.
Baby elephants drink their mother’s milk for the first eight to nine months of their lives.
African elephant calves weigh around 220 pounds (100 kgs) at birth, while Asian elephant calves weigh around 110 pounds (50 kgs).
An elephant calf is about three or four feet tall at birth.
Yes-ish, baby elephants are born nearly blind and rely on their mothers and their trunk. They will recognise their mother’s scent, touch and sound.