As winter turns to spring in some areas around the world, we humans may be experiencing some stuffy noses and itchy eyes – a telltale sign of allergies. For today’s EleFACT Friday, we want to look at the respiratory systems of elephants and look at allergies in animals, both wild and domestic.
It’s no surprise that, like many other anatomical systems of elephants, their lungs are quite impressive. Elephants are actually the only mammal on Earth without a pleural cavity, or the fluid-filled space between the lungs. Their lungs are directly attached to the chest wall and the diaphragm by connective tissue, which is unique. This results in their breathing depending entirely on movement of the chest muscles as opposed to the expanding ribcage, like in us humans.
Research has shown that this aspect of their physiology allows for more direct muscle control, which contributes to their ability to better handle pressure differences when elephants take a dip underwater. Because they inhale mostly through the trunks (either underwater or on land), this lack of pleural cavity allows them to retain water in their trunks without holding their breath.
So your curiosity may have kicked in: with such an impressive respiratory system, unique to any other in the animal (or human) kingdom, do elephants get allergies? It has been shown in the past that animals of every species do demonstrate some health changes when exposed to certain allergens like spores, grass, and pollen. Research has determined that domesticated animals are far more prone to allergies than wild animals based on the “use-it-or-lose-it” aspect of evolution: centuries of living indoors with humans (assuming that the human homes have fewer allergens) may contribute to weaker immune systems. According to Andy Flies, a wild immunologist from the University of Tasmania, the evolution of wild animals may have removed allergies from populations as a whole. He used the example of a leopard stalking their prey and then sneezing when it gets close: natural selection would not allow for such sneezy behaviors in predator or prey populations in the wild.
Although captive elephants can show signs of food sensitivities and sometimes even itchy skin that may be considered to be allergy related, it seems that most elephants are lucky and manage to evade allergy symptoms as a whole.
Photo of Maia and her lovely nose