The Real Reasons Elephants Have Such Big Ears (It’s Not for Hearing)

Elephant ears play an important role in their survival beyond mere hearing.

When people think of elephants, they often immediately think of long trunks and massive, floppy ears ala Dumbo. But while you might assume that bigger ears automatically means extra sensitive hearing, that’s not always the case. In fact, elephant ears are so large for a different reason than many people guess. These are 27 other facts about animals you probably have all wrong.

The large ears act as an air-conditioner

Elephants are huge animals, weighing between 5,000 to 13,000 pounds, so it takes a lot to keep them cool, which is where their big ears come into play. “Elephants have large ears because they serve as one of the ways elephants cool themselves down,” says Sarah Conley, conservation coordinator at the International Elephant Foundation. “Often compared to radiators, elephant ears have large blood vessels that are visible from the back of the ear. Blood circulates through those vessels and cools down, then continues to circulate through the rest of their bodies to cool the rest of them down.”

Elephants use their ears as fans

You might see elephants flapping their ears, and when they do this, they’re actually using them as large fans, which helps to cool them down in a few ways. It helps to promote blood circulation to the ears, says Willie Theison, Elephant Program Manager at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, which in turn helps their entire body cool off, as described above. Second, and more obviously, it helps them swat away flies and insects near that part of their body, adds Conley. Elephants can make their own sunscreen along with these 13 other cool things you didn’t know elephants could do.

Elephants don’t have many sweat glands

Elephants don’t have very many sweat glands, which is what keeps humans and other animals from overheating. “Elephants do not have sweat glands (except for just above the toenails on the feet), so the large ears are an adaptation to help regulate their body temperature,” says Conley. “Since elephants tend to live in rather hot climates, perspiring to cool down might cause dehydration so this adaptation can be seen as a benefit.”

Different elephant species have different sized ears

The elephant closeup black and whiteCrystal Brianna/Shutterstock

Not all elephants have the same sized ears. According to Theison, African elephants have larger ears than Asian elephants. “Conservationists and researchers also use elephant ears as a means of identifying elephants. The patterns of the nicks, tears, and edges are unique to each elephant and help tell them apart,” adds Conley. “One easy way to tell Asian elephants from African elephants is that African elephant ears are shaped like the content of Africa.”

Elephants also use their ears to signal

One way elephants communicate is through their ears. “In the wild, they may flare ears out as a warning to challengers, scare off potential threats, or to show excitement. They also can hold their ears out indicating that they are focusing or listening to something,” says Conley. “Elephants in human care do this as well, which aids their trainers/keepers/mahouts in understanding them and communicating with them.” It’s clear that elephants are intelligent creatures, but here’s just how smart they really are.

Elephants have great hearing

Beyond acting as an air-conditioner, elephants’ ears do also contribute to their excellent hearing. “Due to their large size, elephants have excellent hearing; this can be seen as another benefit, especially when listening for threats,” says Conley. “Their larger ears may aid in directing sounds to the ear,” adds Theison. If you love these pachyderms, you won’t want to miss these 14 stunning photos of elephants in the wild.

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