EleFact Friday: Closest Elephant Relatives

Over the past few years, we’ve written dozens of EleFacts for your enjoyment. Because we have new followers, we thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the posts from the earlier days to help new members of our sanctuary family learn more about this fascinating animal, the elephant. Plus, it’s a bonus to all of you long-time supporters who can now test their knowledge to find out just how much they’ve learned. 

This week, we’re digging into elephants and their closest living relatives. It might seem logical that an elephant’s nearest relatives would be large mammals, but you’d be wrong to guess that. The rock hyrax, also called a rock rabbit, is a small rodent with a surprising number of shared characteristics with elephants. While their evolutionary paths diverged over 65 million years ago, data indicate that they have a close common ancestor. 

Rock hyraxes resemble guinea pigs, but like elephants, they have tusks growing from their incisor teeth. In other mammalian species, tusks grow from the canines. Hyraxes also have flattened hoof-like nails, much like elephants do on the tips of their toes, rather than the curved claws seen on other mammals. Like the elephant, a hyrax has the capacity for long memories, though their brain size keeps them from being quite as impressive with recall as their elephant cousins. 

Other animals, known as Sirenians, including manatees and dugongs, are also unexpected elephant relatives. Both animals have tusk-like incisors and thick, gray skin. Some believe that Sirenians are more closely related to elephants than hyraxes, though the evidence is still inconclusive. Either way, an elephant’s close relative might be more unexpected than you originally thought.

Photo of Guillermina with Maia standing behind her


  1. REPLY
    Terry says

    This is fascinating! I read once about manatees and their connection with Elephants. Never hearing about these other 2 mammals, I’m interested in learning more. Time to Google!

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