African Forest Elephants

Stephanie Schuttler
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Open Minds Teen Science Cafe, Raleigh, North Carolina


How do you study an animal difficult to see? African Forest Elephants are the largest land animals, yet surprisingly there is a hidden species that we know very little about. This species, the African Forest Elephant has been understudied because it can easily hide in dense forests. Scientists, therefore, have to be creative and use a combination of methods to study this difficult creature. In this Teen Science Café, Dr. Stephanie Schuttler talked about using the DNA from elephant dung to study these magnificent animals.

We have included the video of the entire café right here to give you the full picture of how our cafés are conducted.


About the African Forest Elephant

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is a forest-dwelling species of elephant found in the Congo Basin. It is the smallest of the three extant species of elephant, but also the third-largest living terrestrial animal. The African forest elephant and the African bush elephant were considered to be one species until genetic studies showed that their relationship is distant.

These forest-dwelling elephants are smaller and darker than their savanna relatives, the bush elephants, and have smaller and more rounded ears. Compared to the bush elephant, the African forest elephant has a longer, narrower mandible. Its tusks are straighter and harder and have a more yellow or brownish color. These strong tusks are used to push through the dense undergrowth of their habitat and bull elephants (mature males) are sometimes known to have exceptionally long tusks that reach almost to the ground. The species normally has five toenails on the forefoot and four on the hindfoot, like the Asian elephant but unlike the African bush elephant which normally has four toenails on the forefoot and three on the hindfoot. They also protect themselves from the sun by using sand.

A male African forest elephant rarely exceeds 2.5 m (8 ft) in height, considerably smaller than the bush species which is usually over 3 m (just under 10 ft) and sometimes almost 4 m (13 ft) tall. L. cyclotis reportedly weighs around 2.7 tonnes (5,950 lb), with the largest specimens attaining 6 tonnes (13,230 lb). Pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, presumed to be a subgroup of L. cyclotis, have reportedly weighed as little as 900 kg (1,980 lb) as adults.

Hands on Activity

Activity One: Dung balls! African Elephants are hard to find, but a lot can be found out about them based on what they leave behind. Their dung! Participants measured fake dung balls to determine the age of individuals in a group of forest elephants.

Activity Two: Relationship Game. Herds of African Forest Elephants have very complex social structures and relationships. Using characters from the Harry Potter books as examples, participants built relationship webs from pipe cleaners and paper strips.