Life Span of African Elephants

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"Life Span of African Elephants"
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The average lifespan of an African elephant is, put simply, about 60 years. However, to understand why this life expectancy is intriguing, one must delve a little deeper into elephant aging - which is in some ways much stranger and more disturbing than our own.

- Elephant Life Cycle -

Elephants are social animals, living in extended family-based groupings which are somewhat more cohesive than herds, if far less complex than primate societies like those found among chimpanzees. The social group is matriarchal, with adult males typically leaving their own herd and either living a mostly solitary existence or forming herds of male elephants, which seek out females to mate with during the breeding season. Infant elephants typically receive their mother's sole care for about five years and, if they are female, will remain with the herd for the rest of their lives.

In general, the species of elephant which survive - African and Asian elephants, with the latter sometimes known as the Indian elephant - both have similar life spans, of up to 60-70 years. Many fall prey to poachers rather than old age, although increasing conservation measures have come into being as elephants are increasingly recognized as an endangered species. For those who live their full natural lives, however, the end can come in the most ignoble of ways.

- All About the Teeth -

Humans who die of old age usually die of heart trouble or failures of their digestive system; in elephants, bizarrely and sadly, it's the teeth. Tooth systems in elephants are highly developed, leading to their two front tusks - the largest teeth of all, often growing up to several metres on adult males. The rest of their mouth is filled in by premolar and molar teeth, similar to humans.

It is how these teeth age which differs dramatically from humans. In humans, most teeth (with the exception of some molars) come in two sets: the "baby" teeth, which develop in infants and then fall out in young children, and then the permanent or "adult" teeth, which, ideally, will be with us for the rest of our lives. Elephants, in contrast, have six sets of teeth, in addition to their "baby" milk teeth, which last for only about their first year.

These sets of teeth gradually work their way out of the elephant's jaw over the course of its lifetime. Continually chomping on tough grasses and vegetation takes its toll on teeth, wearing them away. As one tooth is worn away, it is pushed out to make room for the new set of molars. For most of the elephant's lifetime, this process proceeds quite smoothly, so that as one set of teeth is worn to the point of uselessness, it is replaced by the next set of teeth.

This process can only continue until the sixth and final set of teeth, however. As this set is worn away, no others rise to replace them. Consequently, old elephants' ability to chew food gradually gets weaker and weaker, forcing them to rely more and more on the softest, wettest vegetation they can find. Eventually, they will lose their chewing surfaces entirely, and starve to death. Were it not for their chronic and ultimately fatal dental problems, elephants would live for much longer. Of the many ways in which nature signals the natural end of life, starving to death due to lack of teeth seems one of the most strange and tragic.

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