For some reason we often try and describe the behavioural motivational for something we might perceive as fun in animals – we ascribe it to learning hunting techniques, establishing dominance or strengthening muscles and so on, but I can assure you, with utmost certainty, that these two elephant bulls were having pure simple fun. A ‘whale of a time’ you might say!
It was an absolute delight to watch! The sun was slipping below the treeline, we were parked on the bridge of Sosigi Dam, and the rest of the bulls were grazing in the riverbed. Knowing we were the only safari vehicle out we settled in for a good hour to enjoy the scene. They splashed, sploshed, sprayed and snorkelled. The game was clear – the aim was to wrestle, then get behind your opponent and jump on his hindquarters, effectively dunking him.
A lone hippo in the background looked, rather nonplussed!
Elephants are excellent swimmers as their massive bodies give them enough buoyancy to float easily. They use all four legs to paddle and use their trunk like a snorkel. Research suggests that elephants are great at swimming because they could have evolved from mammals like the sea cows – dugongs and manatees. This aquatic ancestry was revealed by the study of one embryo and six foetuses, ranging in age from 58 to 166 days old. All the elephant foetuses contained a physiological curiosity called a nephrostome. This is a funnel-shaped kidney duct found only in freshwater fish, frogs and egg-laying reptiles and mammals. The trunks appear extremely early on in foetal development, being shown in even the earliest embryo examined. Further embryonic evidence that elephants once swam is that, unlike other land-living mammals, they have internal testicles and always have done. Seals and whales also have internal testicles, but only acquired them when their land-living ancestors took to the seas 60 million years ago. Fossil evidence indicates that elephants left behind their aquatic life about 30 million years ago.
Elephants in Africa have been recorded to travel a distance of 48 kilometres across water, and also swimming for six hours continuously. Experts believe that the elephants that live in Sri Lanka are the progeny of elephants that swam from Southern India across the sea. (Information from BBC News: Sci/Tech Early elephants used ‘swimming trunks,’ 11 March 1999.)