African Elephant

The largest land mammal on the earth, weighing up to 16,000 pounds, elephants have captivated observers for centuries. Elephants have been used for labor, war, entertainment and hunting. Elephants are one of the most unique animals due to their enormous size and unusual physical characteristics.

One of the most popular elephants is Dumbo, from the Walt Disney film made in the 1940’s. The large ears of elephants, exaggerated in this film, do not hear well, despite their size. They are instead used to help keep themselves cool. There are many blood vessels in the ears, that as they are flapped, easily circulate the blood and keep body temperatures down, an ability that is essential in their desert climates. Elephants ears are so effective due to their size, ranging from two to three feet across.

One of the most distinguishing attributes is the trunk of the elephant. The trunk is an elongated nose that has many purposes and functions, made up of over 40,000 muscles, but no bones. They can use their trunk to suck up water and then spray it into their mouth to drink, wash themselves and keep cool. They use it to warn of danger and communicate with other elephants, as well as to smell and touch each other affectionately. The trunk is used most frequently though to eat. Elephants eat an average of 16 hours a day. Elephants use their trunk to reach up into trees to get food and pluck grass. Because they are such large animals and are herbivores who only eat grass, leaves, other vegetation that is available, African Elephants eat a high quantity of food, more than 700 pounds a day! They have to eat so much because over half of all they consume is passed through their systems undigested.

Elephants have the largest teeth of any animal. Even though they eat so much food,they have only four molar teeth. What they lack in numbers though, they make up in size. Each molar can weigh more than five pounds. With all the food that is eaten, their teeth take a lot of wear and tear and they need to replace their teeth throughout their life, up to six times for some. Their large tusks that extend out in front of them are also teeth, but instead of chewing, these incisor teeth, are used for defense, digging for water and uprooting trees. The ivory of these tusks has long been sought after and the primary reason elephants have been hunted.

Elephants are social animals. They live together in herds, with older females, called matriarchs, guiding the family. Adult males generally live alone while younger elephants, both male and female stay with the herd. Baby elephants, called calves, have a gestation period of 18-22 months and typically nurse from their mother up to five years. When a calf seems bothered or upset, the herd will come to its aide to comfort and caress. It is several more years after they stop nursing before they fully mature and if they are male, move out to be on their own. Their social nature is also reflected in their awareness of death, as grieving seems to take place among a herd when one of their family members die.

Not long ago there were over five million elephants on the earth, but there exists now less than a half million. Climate changes, as well as destruction of habitat, and hunting have influenced the number of elephants. Elephants need a lot of land because they eat so much, drink so much and are such large creatures. When humans are close, the elephants do not have the space they need and infringe on farm land, even eating crops. Although elephants have been revered for centuries and a symbol for faith and religion for some, they are quickly dwindling in numbers, and it is not known how long these captivating mammals will survive.

For That Knee Alone

Most people think learning history is boring, something required in school and then promptly forgotten, like algebra. But, those people never had a history teacher who knew the little stories, and the little stories that make history interesting. For me, art history is not just looking at pretty pictures with pretty colors; it is also a large body of knowledge about the culture and customs of real people. I was fortunate to learn from a number of gifted art historians, no, really storytellers, as teachers. This is one of those little stories.

Italian Renaissance giants Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio had an unspoken competition. The irascible Michelangelo, forced by Pope Julius II into painting the ceiling of his own private chapel, the Sistine as we know it, complained that he was not a painter, but a sculptor. This complaint fell on deaf ears as the pope had a war to fight and neither time nor patience for soothing the artistic temperament. If the tale is true, the pope had even less patience for seeing that the artist was paid. Food being a necessity, this was a bone of contention between artist and patron. Raphael, on the other hand, blessed with a much more affable personality, never seemed to lack for funds, friends, or food. Both artists were occupied with the private artistic visions of the pope in the Vatican simultaneously.

The work of Raphael in the Vatican Stanze was open to the curious. Michelangelo left strict orders that no visitors were to be allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, busy as a bee himself, consumed with a daunting task, apparently had little interest in the work of Raphael. But Raphael had an interest in his. He paid a secret visit aided by the pope to view the chapel ceiling in progress. So profoundly did it affect him that he returned to his work in the Stanza della Segnatura, the private library of the pope, where he proceeded to pay tribute to Michelangelo by incorporating a seated figure of Michelangelo in the foreground of his masterpiece fresco, The School of Athens.

That is only the background for this little story. Perhaps not so well known then as his Madonnas or his magnificent Vatican frescoes, Raphael Sanzio also executed a stunning fresco of The Prophet Isaiah in Sant Agostino in Rome in 1511-12. The donor patron of Isaiah was Head Chancellor of the Papal Court, Johannes Goritz of Luxemburg. Ruffled by what he considered to be an exorbitant price for the painting by Raphael, Goritz solicited Michelangelo for his opinion of its worth. Michelangelo looked at the painting of his chief rival with its powerfully rendered figure of the prophet. Rarely one to acknowledge the genius in others, Michelangelo simply replied, ‘For that knee alone, it is worth the price.’