African Elephant

Loxodonta africana

An African elephant, Loxodonta africana, walking through grass.

African elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet. Their impact on savanna ecosystems benefits big and small species alike.

Range map of the African elephant

A family of elephants walking through tall grass. Click for larger image.

Elephants on the savanna Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

Elephants are famous symbols of the African savanna, but they are less known for their role as ecosystem engineers: organisms that create, change, or maintain habitats. Elephants transform their habitats in a variety of ways: by knocking down trees, pulling up grass, plowing trails through dense plants, and digging water holes that other animals can use. Scientists have observed these impacts for decades. More recently, they’ve started studying the broader effects of elephants on species diversity.

An elephant rubbing its head against a tree and scraping off bark. Click for larger image.

Elephants often break branches and knock down trees, creating more habitat for smaller animals. Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

An elephant standing amidst broken tree branches. Click for larger image.

An elephant next to a large branch Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

Scientists compared similar areas where elephants were either present or absent. Areas where elephants were present had a greater diversity of small reptiles and amphibians. One possible explanation is that trees damaged by elephants provide habitats for communities of smaller animals.