Digestive System

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Did you know?

  • Elephants have a fairly simple mammalian digestive system
  • Elephants have a fairly small mouth for the size of their body
  • Not much digestion takes place in the stomach, as its main function is storage
  • The intestines in a large male bull can achieve a length of  19 metres
  • Fecal matter can be used to judge the size of an elephant, since it retains its shape after falling to the ground

The digestive system of the elephant is not something special in structure. In fact, it is very similar that of any ordinary mammal, except in size and in the areas of the stomach and the intestines. The other key components of the digestive system, such as the liver and the pancreas, are of the ordinary mammalian type and are only distinguished by their large size. It is by taking a look at the elephant's digestive system that we can appreciate how vital they are as a super-keystone species.

The digestive process begins with the entrance of food in the mouth.  Quite interesting to observe is the size of the elephant's mouth.  They have a relatively small mouth for the size of their body, which consequently cannot be opened widely.  To aid in the initial digestive process, there are well-developed salivary glands in the mouth, along with the mucous glands present in the short esophagus.  Together they help to lubricate the coarse vegetation of the elephant's diet.

The simplicity of the elephant's digestive system is illustrated in part by the stomach.  The stomach is a simple sac that is oriented almost vertically.  It is of an unusual cylindrical shape, with the middle region being partly glandular.  Unbelievably, not much digestion takes place in the stomach, but it acts in the capacity of storage.

The intestines of the elephant further distinguish them from other animals. The intestines of an African bull elephant can achieve an incredible length of up to 19 metres. 

The diet of the elephant is primarily made up of vegetation.  As a result of this diet, the elephant's digestive system requires the function of fermentative digestion of cellulose through the action of bacteria.  This takes place at the junction of the small and large intestines where there is a huge sacculated (divided into many smaller divisions) caecum.  The products of digestion are absorbed through the relatively thin and vascularized (containing many vessels/ducts) walls of the caecum.

With the remaining products of digestion passing through, the intestine is now largely concerned with the consolidation of the feces and the absorption of water.  The fecal matter takes on the form of boluses, each the shape of a short cylinder whose dimensions reflect those of the rectum.  Scientists sometimes use the feces to judge the size of the elephant producing them, since the feces usually retain their shape after falling to the ground.  Another useful topographical reference point when measuring the size of elephants can be obtained by observing the anal flap (the distinctive fold of skin covering the anus)

The fecal matter of the elephant is vital to the position of the elephant as a super-keystone species.  Although they may consume much vegetation, not much of it is broken down in the process of digestion.  As a result seeds and other vegetation pass though in a relatively untouched state, to the benefit of dung beetles and birds who feed off this nutrient-laden fecal matter.

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