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SKIN/COAT/PELAGE - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta africana - African Elephant

Adult: Elephants are only sparsely haired. They have long eyelashes, sensory hairs on the trunk and protective hairs around the external ear orifice. Over most of the body, hair is sparse but it may be more obvious on the forehead, lips, and round the vulva; there are also hairs on the knees and the back, and on the tail. The main skin colour is dark brownish grey or grey-black, but this is often hidden under the colour of the local soil. The skin varies in thickness from only several millimetres on the backs of the ears to 1.9 - 3.2 cm over the body, thickest on the hind quarters. The presence of sebaceous glands and sweat glands has been debated; sebaceous glands have been reported in elephants and a detailed study of the interdigital skin of two Elephas maximus - Asian Elephants detected eccrine type sweat glands but no apocrine glands. They possess mammary glands and unique glands, the temporal glands, on the sides of the head.

Adult Colour variations: Melanistic (black) elephants do occur. 

Newborn/Juvenile: Calves have a more obvious hair coat of scattered reddish or black soft hairs, particularly on the head and back. This is replaced by about six months with stiffer bristles.

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Hair / Moult

  • Elephants are only sparsely haired. (B147, B285.w3, B453.Intro.w13)
  • Hair is found mainly on the forehead, lips (upper and lower), ear orifices, the back and the end of the tail. (B10.49.w21)
  • There are sensory hairs on the trunk. (B384.3.w3)
  • Hairs are scattered over the body; they vary in length, colour and thickness and are short and bristly (B453.1.w1)
  • Elephants maintained in cold climates with access to the outside in winter may develop a longish red-brown hair coat. (B453.Intro.w13)
  • There are "extravagantly glamorous" eyelashes and also long eyebrows and hairs around the ear orifice. (B453.1.w1)
  • Elephants have sparse, bristly hairs over the body. (B451.1.w1)
  • Elephants have long eyelashes, hairs, probably protective, in the ear orifices, and long hairs on the lower lip. (B451.1.w1)
  • Adults have hairs on the chin, eyelids, trunk, knees and tail, as well as around the vulva and the external auditory meatus. (B450.17.w17)
  • Younger animals are more prominently haired than are older animals. (B10.49.w21, B453.Intro.w13)
  • At birth the calf has reddish, soft hair; at six months of age this is lost and is replaced by stiff black bristles. (B384.3.w3)
  • In young calves there is a scattered coat of black or reddish soft hairs, particularly on the head and back. (B453.1.w1)
  • In utero there is a felt of long, downy hair, the laguno, over the calf; this is mainly shed before the calf is born, however the calf still is relatively hairy, especially on the head and back. (B451.1.w1)
  • There is much more hair on the fetal and newborn elephant than on the adult. (B450.17.w17)

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Dermis, Subdermis and Epidermis

  • The skin on the ears is only several millimetres thick, but on the body it is 1.9 to 3.2 cm thick, being thinnest over the forelimbs and shoulders and thickest over the hindquarters and hind limbs. (B10.49.w21)
  • The skin reaches two to four centimetres (0.8 - 1. inches) thick. (B285.w3)
  • The skin is usually grey-black in colour. (B10.49.w21)
  • The apparent colour of the skin is affected by the local soil and can indicate the elephant's recent activity if different areas have soils of different colours. (B462.3.w3)
  • In the healthy elephant the skin has a uniform temperature, is pliable, and there is little surface dead skin and scurf. (B10.49.w21)
  • The skin is brownish grey. (B147)
  • The true colour of the skin is often hidden under the colour of the soil of the area in which the elephant lives, due to the habits of wallowing in pools and streams and throwing soil and mud over the back. (B147)
  • In African elephants the skin is considerably wrinkled; this may assist in moisture retention. (B384.3.w3)
  • The epidermis is about 1.5 mm thick, while the dermis is up to 25 mm thick. (B384.3.w3)
  • The skin is thinnest on the trunk, breast, legs, groin and ears. (B384.3.w3)
  • Columnar "studs" or pillars link the dermis to the underlying subcutaneous tissue. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants lack erector pili muscles. (B384.3.w3)
  • The skin is kept flexible by diffusion of water from the body through the skin; this is then lost by evaporation. Losses may be about 2.5 L per hour for a juvenile of 1.2 tonnes, or twice that amount for an adult bull elephant. (B384.4.w4)
  • The skin is usually greyish or dark brown; melanistic (black) elephants are known. ((B453.1.w1), B453.Intro.w13)
  • In very elderly elephants there may be patchy loss of pigmentation around the face and ears. (B453.1.w1)
  • The skin varies greatly in thickness; it is thinnest on the ear pinna and the lateral side of the forearm; it is thickest on the dorsum, flanks, trunk, forehead and legs. At its thickest it may reach 3 cm. There are permanent folds and creases in the skin, some very marked. (B453.1.w1)
  • On the skin are found warty projections (papillae). (B453.1.w1)
  • The skin colour is often hidden under a layer of soil, but the true colour may be seen more often in the rainy season. (B453.1.w1)
  • In a healthy elephant the skin is very mobile and sensitive. (B453.1.w1)
  • The skin is very thick over the back and sides (up to 2.0 - 3.0 cm), while the skin on the abdomen is much thinner. (B451.1.w1)
  • The skin is marked by ridges and creases; these are prominent on the forehead and trunk, where warty outgrowths are found. (B451.1.w1)
  • The skin feels dry, soft and supple. (B451.1.w1)
  • Sweat glands have not been found histologically, but considerable water vapour is lost through the skin, with sweat being found under the harness of working Asian elephants. (B451.1.w1)
  • The skin is greyish black, but generally appears the colour of the local soil. (B451.1.w1)
  • The skin is dark brown to grey, varying over the body. (B450.17.w17)
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Glandular Structures

  • Sweat glands are present throughout the skin, and mainly sparse, except for just proximal to the toenails; a slight secretion may be visible here. (B10.49.w21)
  • Elephants lack sebaceous glands associated with their hair follicles. (B147)
  • Elephants lack both sebaceous glands and sweat glands. (B384.3.w3)
  • There are temporal, mammary and sebaceous glands; sweat glands have not been demonstrated histologically, but this may be due to practical difficulties. (B453.1.w1)
  • The presence of sweat has been reported on elephants. Sebaceous glands but not sweat (sudoriferous) glands were found in an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus - Asian Elephant) fetus by one researcher. Neither were detected in the dissection of an adult elephant by other workers. Some researchers have argued that there is no evidence of the presence of sweat glands, and that they are not required by elephants. (B450.17.w17)
  • Sebaceous glands have been reported in elephants. (B455.w4)
  • Eccrine sweat glands were detected in the interdigital spaces of two Elephas maximus - Asian Elephant. (J21.71.w1)

Temporal glands:

  • Elephants possess unique glands, the temporal glands, under the skin between the eye and the ear canal on either side of the head. There is a single duct from each gland onto the surface of the skin. (B10.49.w21)
    • This gland produces a dark oily fluid, which may be seen exuding from the gland periodically. Both male and female Loxodonta may show fluid draining from the temporal glands associated with excitement or apprehension. (B10.49.w21)
  • The temporal gland is a modified apocrine sweat gland. (B384.8.w8)
  • The temporal gland in African elephants secretes in both males and females and in juveniles and calves (from about six months old) as well as adults. (B384.8.w8)
  • The temporal gland secretes more in individuals which are stressed or excited. (B384.8.w8)
  • In adult males, frequency of secretion diminishes, except during musth. (B384.8.w8)
  • In adult males the gland can weigh 1.5 kg; in females it weighs about 50% of this weight. (B384.8.w8)
  • Secretions from males during musth are sticky and stain the sides of the face for longer periods than does the usual more watery secretion. (B384.8.w8)
  • The temporal gland probably plays a role in olfactory communication; elephants rub the gland on trees and branches. (B384.8.w8)
  • The temporal gland is found on either side of the head in the temporal depression. It is an apocrine gland, thick-walled, disc-shaped, of ectodermal origin, found in the subcutaneous tissue and opening to the skin surface through a duct located in the centre of the gland's lower border, to the temporal pore near the lateral canthus of the eye. (B453.1.w1)
  • The gland increases in size with age, e.g. 230 gm in a bull of eleven years but 1,590 gm in an old bull. (B453.1.w1)
    • Macroscopically, the gland is similar to salivary gland in appearance with multiple lobules held together by septae of connective tissue. (B453.1.w1)
    • Histologically, groups of tubular alveolae form each lobule, with ducts of two layers coming from the groups of alveoli and leading into larger connecting ducts, these into interlobular ducts in the septae, three to six interlobular ducts open into a short secondary duct and the secondary ducts then unite forming the main duct. There is a transition from cuboidal epithelium to squamous epithelium along the duct progression and the main duct has stratified squamous epithelium and is lined with hairs (facing outwards). Within the secretion is mucin; additionally there are large round granules, found in cuboidal cells of the alveoli and in their secretion, which stain blue with haematoxylin and eosin stain. (B453.1.w1)
  • Secretion may be noticed in various situations, including in calm elephants, but may be increased in various stressful circumstances (physical or emotional) such as during fear, panic, aggression and when mating. The temporal secretion may play a role in olfactory communication between elephants. (B453.1.w1)
  • The temporal glands are found one on each side of the head, between the ear and the eye. They can be quite large, weighing up to 1.5 kg in males. They produce a copious secretion which smells strongly of elephant and runs down the side of the face. (B451.1.w1)
  • Both male and female African elephants produce copious temporal gland discharges. (B451.4.w4)
  • The temporal glands are superficial to the temporal muscles, just caudal to the eyes. Present in both males and females, they enlarge in males at the same time that males show their growth spurt. In an adult male they may three times as much as the glands of an adult female. (B387.w4)
  • It is possible that the scent of the temporal gland secretions allows recognition of individual elephants, and perhaps assessment of reproductive state. (B387.w4)

Mammary glands:

  • There is a single pair, situated in the axillae. (B453.1.w1, B451.1.w1)
  • There are two pectoral nipples. (B387.w4)
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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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