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Elephant behaviors Questions & Answers (FAQs)

How Do Elephants Breathe?

When you think of elephants, the first thing that probably comes to mind is their gigantic size. They’re definitely big creatures. In fact, they’re the largest terrestrial mammal on Earth and they can be found in Africa (the African elephants) and in Asia (the Asian elephants). Read more about the difference between the elephant species.

An adult male elephant usually measures around 10 feet in height and can weigh up to 11 tons.

And while it’s obvious that these massive creatures have a large lung capacity and take frequent breaths of air, how do elephants breathe? An elephant’s lungs are unusually small for its body size compared to other animals its sizes like humans, hippopotamuses, or moose.


The Anatomy of an Elephant’s Lung

Like all mammals, elephants have two lungs that are located in the thoracic cavity between the heart and the diaphragm. But, their lungs are relatively small for their body size compared to other creatures that size.

An adult elephant’s lungs only make up about 5% of its total body weight. In contrast, an adult human’s lungs make up about 12% of its total body weight.

The diaphragm is a large muscle that contracts when we breathe, pulling down to increase the size of the thoracic cavity and allow more air to enter the lungs.

The lungs are surrounded by lots of other organs, blood vessels, and nerves. The elephant’s lungs are subdivided into 16 different lobes that are similar to the lobes in human lungs.

The similarities between humans and elephants don’t end at their lungs, though. The structure of the soft tissue inside an elephant’s lungs is also very similar to that of humans.


Elephant Lung Capacity

The elephant’s lung capacity is about six times greater than that of a human. A healthy elephant can hold its breath for a short period of time. Since an elephant’s chest is so large, there’s a lot of space for air to fill up and expand. An Elephant takes roughly four to five breaths a minute.

Elephants breathe out an average of 310 liters of air per minute.

An elephant’s long, slow breathing patterns are also important for regulating their blood pressure.

Since the elephant’s heart rate is relatively slow, their blood pressure can drop, leading to fainting. By taking slow, large breaths, their blood pressure is regulated and they remain conscious.


How Do Elephants Breathe?

The respiratory system of elephants is peculiar. When the elephant’s trunk takes in air through the two nostrils, the diaphragm drops and the animal inhales, the volume of the lungs increases. It might interest you to know that the elephant trunk consists of about 40,00 muscles around the nose tubes.

Air enters the elephant’s lungs through their trachea, which is the main airway that allows oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to leave the body. The elephant’s trachea splits into the left and right bronchi, which are two more airways that lead to the elephant’s left and right lung lobes. Oxygen travels through the blood vessels in the lung tissue and into the bloodstream.

The blood moves through the heart and backs out again through the pulmonary artery, which is the artery that leads out of the heart. Then the blood is now enriched with carbon dioxide, which is picked up from the tissues of the body.

The blood travels through the capillaries of the lung and enters the bronchial tree, where the carbon dioxide is exhaled out of the body through the trachea.

Elephant playing and breathing in water.
Elephant cooling down by swimming. Elephants are known to breathe under water, using their trunk as a snorkel.

Elephants’ Breathing Process

Like many other mammals, elephants have an ‘open’ system for gas exchange. This means that their lungs are not connected to the throat, so gases are exchanged between the alveoli (air sacs in the lung) and the blood in the capillaries without passing through any other tissues or moving into and out of the other lung lobes.

This system is advantageous for a creature of the elephant’s size, since squeezing both lungs closed and allowing air out of the lungs by closing the glottis (the space between the vocal cords) would be incredibly difficult. Instead, they have one lung open at a time while they push the air out of the other lung and close the capillaries.

How Often Do Elephants Breathe?

Elephants’ breathing rate is very low, which is actually very beneficial. Compared to other animals their size, elephants breathe very slowly.

A normal elephant breathes about five to six times per minute.

They also take long breaths when they do breathe, which increases the amount of air they take in. Human beings, on the other hand, breathe six times per minute but take shorter breaths.

This means that elephants take in a larger volume of air with each breath than humans do.

Do Elephants Have Breathing Exercises?

Since elephants have such a low breathing rate, it’s likely that they don’t have any special exercises for regulating their breathing. However, like most mammals, elephants are capable of holding their breath for an extended period of time. That said, it’s not always a conscious choice.

During a fight, an elephant will often take a few moments to breathe deeply through its trunks before charging its opponent. However, elephants have also been known to faint shortly after a big fight.

This indicates that the elephant was holding their breath during the fight and wasn’t able to breathe properly before falling unconscious.


The Bottom Line

Elephants are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. They’re intelligent, social, and quite beautiful. And while they’re very large, they’re also relatively light for mammals of their size. This is because they have a low body fat percentage relative to their overall weight. This means that the elephant must take frequent breaths to replenish the oxygen in its bloodstream.

While they breathe very slowly compared to other mammals of their size, it’s still important for them to take many breaths each day. Additionally, it’s important for an elephant to breathe deeply.

This is especially true in stressful situations. When an elephant is feeling scared or frightened, it contracts its muscles. This makes it harder for the animal to expand its chest enough to take a deep breath. Taking a deep, slow breath will help the elephant calm down.

Finally, you already know how elephants breathe! These magnificent creatures have many adaptations to help them survive, including their large lung capacity, low body fat percentage, and slow breathing rate.


Frequently Asked Questions about Elephants breathing

How do Elephants breathe?

The respiratory system of elephants is peculiar. When the elephant’s trunk takes in air through the two nostrils, the diaphragm drops and the animal inhales, the volume of the lungs increases.

What is the lung capacity of an Elephant?

Elephants breathe out an average of 310 liters of air per minute.

How many times a minute does an Elephant breathe?

A normal elephant breathes about five to six times per minute.

Article by Olivia Garcia

Olivia Garcia is originally from Texas. She fell in love with Elephants during a trip to Africa in the early 2010s, where she got to see these beautiful creatures up close. She spent a total of 6 months at the Desert Elephants Volunteer Project in Namibia, living amongst elephants.

Today, she lives with her husband and two kids in Texas. Olivia dreams about one day taking her kids to Africa to show them where she fell in love with elephants!

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