From the Elephant’s Mouth: The Life Cycle of Elephant Teeth
We’ve often heard our Rangers talking about elephant teeth on game drives. While we watch these giants (the elephants, not our Rangers, although…) moving through the landscape, nibbling on thorns and branches, the Ranger will say something like, “Did you know: the loss of teeth is the leading cause of death among mature elephants?”
You might have thought it was a lion that led to most aging elephants’ demise, but as the elephant’s final molar begins to smoothen and break down, it becomes increasingly difficult for it to chew and process food. This causes a decline in the animal’s well-being and many elephants die of starvation or malnutrition as a result.
The teeth of elephants are indeed unique and what leads to this final life stage of their dentition is the way their teeth evolve over their lifespans.
While for humans, teeth are produced from the top and bottom of the mouth, in elephants, they develop from the back and move forward. Elephants have only molars: with four at a time and a molar in each jaw. They are wide and flat in shape – perfect for grinding. The ridges on the surface of the teeth form a diamond shape.
During their lives, these animals go through six sets of molars and as a tooth wears out through all that grinding out in the wilderness, another molar pushes forward to replace it. In rare instances, an elephant may develop a seventh molar.
Another “did you know” our Rangers will enlighten you with on safari (but no more secrets after this), is that in addition to elephants, manatees and kangaroos also have teeth that move forward in the jaw in this way.
When they are born, elephants have four small developing molars, which they lose at about two years of age. Each set of teeth thereafter lasts for a longer period of time until the final set, which arrives when they are around 30 – 40 years old. This set has to last them for the rest of their lives – which, in a protected wilderness like the Kapama Private Game Reserve at Jabulani, can extend for 70 years. The teeth that are worn down eventually break off and fall out.
Evolution is what led elephants to boast such special dentition, as their environments changed and they adapted “to sustain a long lifetime’s worth of heavy wear,” according to The Guardian.
Their trunks and tusks started to appear in their elephant ancestors by about 20 million years ago.“For a large animal with a short neck, the trunk was an extremely useful development, allowing these proboscideans to grasp leaves and bring them to the mouth, thus providing an evolutionary advantage.”
The development of a trunk and the transformation of incisors into tusks led to a change in the shape of the skull and, in turn, a change in the teeth. With their shorter jaw, elephants had less space for a full set of molars, but their teeth needed to be able to last them their whole lives.
Evolution’s solution: “Rather than having a whole set of premolars and molars crammed into the mouth at the same time – as in your mouth – there was just a single, large tooth occupying each side of the upper and lower jaw at any time. As this tooth wore down, another would be growing behind it, ready to slide into place when the worn-out tooth fell out, providing the animal with up to six sets of teeth in a lifetime.”
Next time you stare into the tomb-like mouths of Jabulani or Sebakwe or watch a wild elephant feeding itself in the wild, remember just how much work and purposeful intention (on nature’s part) went into the creation of their vital and fascinating tools.