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How to age an elephant

It is possible to make a rough estimate of an elephant's age from its physical size but this varies between individuals. Open wide please!

The most reliable way to age an elephant is by looking at its teeth.

An elephant's molars, necessary for grinding up plant material, are replaced six times during its lifetime. These molars form at the back of the jaw, and move slowly forward and upward. Each set is gradually worn down and replaced by the next set. The replacement of these molars can be linked directly to age so, by identifying the molars in use, the age span of the elephant can be determined.

  • Molar set 1 age 0 - 2 years
  • Molar set 2 age 0 - 6 years
  • Molar set 3 age 1 - 15 years
  • Molar set 4 age 6 - 28 years
  • Molar set 5 age 18 - 43 years
  • Molar set 6 age 30 - 65 years

Once the sixth set has worn down, the animal is unable to chew food anymore and dies of starvation.

For more accurate calculations, scientists look at the exact position of the molars within the jaw. They also examine the dentine and cement on the roots of the teeth. New layers are laid down every year, so counting the number of layers on the molar can give a more precise age.

For more information see Richard Laws' classic paper:

Laws, R.M. (1966) Age criteria for the African elephant, Loxondonta africana africana. E. Afr. Wildl. J. 4,1-37.

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