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An elephant roams on a patch of dirt.
Photograph: Courtesy of AMNH

Explore 'The Secret World of Elephants' at this new AMNH exhibit

Touch an elephant's tooth, listen to elephant calls and learn more about these majestic creatures.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Majestic, incredible elephants are getting the spotlight in a new exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History. "The Secret World of Elephants" will showcase both modern and ancient elephants, offering visitors a chance to see a full-scale model of a woolly mammoth, learn about what elephants eat, touch an elephant's tooth, listen to elephant calls and more.

The exhibition opens on Monday, November 13, in the museum’s LeFrak Family Gallery. An additional ticket is required to visit the exhibit; museum members can visit for free.

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Truly awe-inspiring animals, elephants "hear" with their feet, use 40,000 muscles in their trunks and reshape the forests and savannas they live in, creating an environment upon which many other species rely.

Their trunks are strong enough to pull down a tree, yet nimble enough to pluck a single blade of grass. They form close social bonds, recognizing each others’ voices. They’re known to care for ill individuals and to visit the spot where a family member died. As ingenious problem solvers, elephants trample plants, dig water holes and transport seeds, acting as ecosystem engineers affecting hundreds of other species. 

"The Secret World of Elephants" reveals new science about these beautiful creatures, highlighting their extraordinary mind and senses and detailing why they're essential to ecosystems.

Elephants are not only majestic and incredible animals, they are pillars of their ecosystems, playing a vital role in the intricate tapestry of life on our planet.

Though humans and elephants have lived together for centuries, that relationship has often been fraught. The exhibition will examine the impact of killing elephants for ivory and confront how climate change is affecting elephants.

"Elephants are not only majestic and incredible animals, they are pillars of their ecosystems, playing a vital role in the intricate tapestry of life on our planet," AMNH President Sean M. Decatur said in a press release. "We hope this exhibition reminds visitors of our shared responsibility to protect and preserve Earth’s magnificent diversity."

A male Asian elephant is enjoying bathing, spraying water with his trunk.
Photograph: By Independent birds / Shutterstock

Highlights of "The Secret Life of Elephants" include:

  • A full-scale model of a woolly mammoth, depicted in the process of shedding its winter coat
  • An interactive exhibit that demonstrates how elephants use extremely low sound waves—called infrasound—to send messages through the ground and to other elephants' feet, which conduct vibrations up their legs and to their brains.
  • A life-size African elephant model with a projection on one side of its body showing the skeleton of this massive mammal and providing an inside look at how it processes the huge amount of food it eats—between 300-500 pounds per day. The model also documents elephant gestation, which can last for nearly two years, longer than any other living mammal.
  • A life-size model of the extinct dwarf elephant with a dwarf elephant calf.
  • Touchable teeth of an elephant, a mammoth and a gomphothere (a distant elephant relative that became extinct around the end of the Ice Age and was the only proboscidean to reach South America).
  • An interactive exhibit about elephant vocalization, which plays different elephant calls, each with its own meaning.
  • Conservation-themed interactive exhibits that examine the impact of killing elephants for ivory, how climate change is affecting elephants, and ways that humans and elephants can share the planet and reduce human and elephant conflict.
A young elephant right next to an adult one.
Photograph: Claudia Paulussen / Shutterstock

The history of elephants  

After the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, about 60 million years ago, the larger group to which proboscideans (elephants and their close relatives) belong arose.

Since then, more than 200 species of proboscideans evolved, living on every continent except for Antarctica and Australia. During the Ice Ages, between 1.8 million and 11,700 years ago, more than 50 different elephant relatives still roamed the globe, including mammoths and mastodons. By the end of that period, extinctions had wiped out most giant mammals across the world.

The elephant family tree features as a part of the AMNH exhibit. Visitors will learn about the iconic woolly mammoth, the dwarf elephant Palaeoloxodon falconeri (which lived in what is now Sicily and was only about 4 feet tall at its shoulders), and the three modern elephant species alive today. 

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