Different types of teeth are one of the key differences between African and Asian elephants. Aside from tusks and tushes, all elephant teeth are molars or pre molars. African teeth are ‘loxadont’ which means having sloping teeth and gives rise to the species scientific name Africana Loxadonta.
Asian elephants teeth, in contrast, have a compressed diamond-shaped lamella profile that are adapted to the elephant’s diet of grasses, trees, shrubs and bark. Their teeth work by moving in a forwards and backwards motion, grinding down plant material.
Elephant dentition is unique. In most animals, including humans, teeth are produced from the top and bottom of the mouth. In elephants however, the teeth are developed from the back and push forward. Elephant have six sets of molars in their lifetime and as a tooth wears out through relentless grinding, another pushes forward to replace it.
At birth, calves have four small developing molars which they will lose at about two years old. Each successive set of teeth will last for a longer period of time until the final set appears at about 30 years. The worn down teeth wear off into a shelf which will eventually break off and fall out.
Molar Number Appears Loss
1 birth 2 years
2 birth 6 years
3 1 year 13-15 years
4 6 years 28 years
5 18 years 43 years
6 30 years 65 years
On very rare occasions, a 7th molar can appear.
The loss of teeth is the leading cause of death among mature elephants. As the final molar begins to break down, it becomes increasingly difficult to chew and digest food. Elephants in this predicament often die of starvation or malnutrition.