The standard differential scaling of proportions in limb long bones (length against circumference) was applied to a phylogenetically wide sample of the Proboscidea, Elephantidae and the Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants. In order to investigate allometric patterns in proboscideans and terrestrial mammals with parasagittal limb kinematics, the computed slopes between long bone lengths and circumferences (slenderness exponents) were compared with published values for mammals, and studied within a framework of the theoretical models of long bone scaling under gravity and muscle forces. Limb bone allometry in E. maximus and the Elephantidae is congruent with adaptation to bending and/or torsion induced by muscular forces during fast locomotion, as in other mammals, whereas the limb bones in L. africana appear to be adapted for coping with the compressive forces of gravity. Hindlimb bones are therefore more compliant than forelimb bones, and the resultant limb compliance gradient in extinct and extant elephants, contrasting in sign to that of other mammals, is shown to be a new important locomotory constraint preventing elephants from achieving a full-body aerial phase during fast locomotion. Moreover, the limb bone pattern of African elephants, indicating a noncritical bone stress not increasing with increments in body weight, explains why their mean and maximal body masses are usually above those for Asian elephants. Differences in ecology may be responsible for the subtle differences observed in vivo between African and Asian elephants, but they appear to be more pronounced when revealed via mechanical patterns dictated by limb bone allometry. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 100, 16–29.