Happy EleFact Friday. We’ve previously discussed tusks and tushes on both African and Asian elephants. Today we’re going to dive in a little further into the anatomy of tusks on African elephants.
Tusks are anatomically composed similarly to teeth; they’re essentially just projecting incisors that are comparable to most mammalian teeth. Although tusks already appear to be long, one third of them are actually hidden from view and embedded in the head. This part of the tusk is made up of a pulp cavity containing tissue, blood, and nerves. Nerves also run partially down the length of the tusk. Just as humans can experience issues with our enamel, pulp cavities, or other parts of our teeth, elephants can encounter issues as well. African elephants can often “chip a tooth” going through their normal daily behaviors.
Occasionally, a tusk can break off at the root, which can cause infection if the pulp is exposed, which could lead to secondary infection. It has been noted that, in some cases, if a tusk is not broken off at its root, it can continue to grow.
Kenya, the female African elephant currently living at EcoParque Mendoza that we plan to bring to sanctuary in the future, has a tusk that grows inappropriately. Her right tusk grows through the side of her sulcus, the tissue cavity area around her tusk, instead of growing outward. This has been a long-term issue with her and has led to the park needing to address infections in the past. Despite their size, elephant tusks (and tushes) are not indestructible, and require attention and care especially after harm.
Photo of Kenya, showing off her tusk