Did you know that ‘pachyderm’ is Greek for ‘thick skin’? We’ve shared about the impressive capabilities of elephant skin through several different EleFacts and, as seasons change here at the sanctuary, we occasionally get asked about how the residents manage to keep cool when their skin is so thick.
Elephants don’t sweat anywhere on their bodies but between their toes, where tiny pores exist. However, the pattern of wrinkles and crevices in their thick skin traps water when they bathe or play in water, which later evaporates and transfers heat into the air, similarly to how humans sweat. Elephants also experience the physiological phenomenon of vasodilation: during warm seasons or periods of heightened body temperature, blood vessels will widen and bring warm blood from the cores of their bodies to the skin’s surface. This is why human faces become pink when we exercise, which helps cool us down.
The ears of elephants play a key role in keeping them cool, and the large, flapping ears do more than just circulate the air. Because the skin of the ears is relatively thin and filled with many tiny blood vessels, vasodilation allows for those vessels to fill with blood to dissipate body heat. It has also been found that elephants have what are called “thermal windows” on their bodies, which are networks of blood vessels that rise up right near the surface of their thick skin. Although these hot spots can’t be seen with the naked eye, it is believed that by bringing more heat to the skin across the entire body, there are increased levels of evaporation of the water trapped in their wrinkles – the closest they can get to sweating. This is also true for when temperatures drop and the elephants get a bit too cold. Vasodilation can adjust accordingly and these thermal windows will “close,” helping the elephants retain heat and regulate body temperature.
Close up photo of Bambi showing the lovely pigment on her nose and ears