Elephants are sometimes called pachyderms, from the Greek word “pachydermose” which means “thick-skinned”. This is only partially true. While most of their skin is 2-4 cm thick, skin around the mouth, behind the ears, near the eye, and on their chest and shoulders is paper thin.
Elephant skin sensitivity
Despite the thickness their skin is very sensitive, with elephants detecting every insect landing on it or the slightest scratch. They are vulnerable to the sun, so to combat both an elephant will often cover itself in dust or mud, or spray itself with water to provide some protection.
Their mostly thick skin is also no protection from the cold. They can get frostbite if the temperature dips below freezing, and even catch colds in chilly weather.
While elephants are obviously not furry, they do have small bristly hairs – mostly hidden among the folds and wrinkles. The skin of an Asian elephant is covered with more hair than African elephants, with the most hair on both species being found on the tip of their tails.
Elephant temperature control
Elephants have no sweat glands on their skin, instead their wrinkles trap moisture, which then takes longer to evaporate and keeps them cooler than they would be with smooth skin. Again there are differences with species, with Asian elephants being less wrinkled as they live in a cooler climate. They also have thousands of tiny blood vessels behind their ears, and when they flap them the breeze cools down the blood which then circulates and lowers body temperature.
Elephant skin colour
The natural colour of elephants is grey, however they will frequently match the colour of the native soil – due to them covering themselves in mud or dust. Asian elephants have patches of depigmentation, with these white spots being like our freckles. In very rare cases these spots can cover the whole animal, resulting in a “white” or albino elephant (despite the name the true colour is normally a soft reddish-brown rather than all white).
Photo credit: Flickr user rogergordon