Heat transfer in elephants: thermal partitioning based on skin temperature profiles



    1. San Diego Zoological Society Research Department, San Diego, CA 92112
    Search for more papers by this author
    • 1

      NOSC Hawaii Laboratory, PO Box 997, Code 511, Kailoa. HI 96734, USA


The elephant with its low surface-to-volume ratio presents an interesting problem concerning heat dissipation. To understand how such large mammals remain in thermal balance, we determined the major avenues of heat loss for an adult African elephant and an immature Indian elephant. Because conventional physiological measurements are difficult for these animals, the present study used a non-invasive technique, infrared thermography, to measure skin temperatures of each elephant. Detailed surface temperature profiles and surface area measurements of each elephant were used in standard equations for convective, conductive and radiant heat transfer. Results demonstrated that heat transfer by free convection and radiation accounted for 86% of the total heat loss for the elephants at Ta= 12·6 °C. Heat transfer across the ears, an important thermal window at high ambient temperatures, represented less than 8% of the total heat loss. Surface area of the animals, and metabolic heat production calculated from total heat loss of the African elephant, scaled predictably with body mass. In contrast, the thermal conductance of the elephants (71·6 W/°C, African; 84·5 W/°C, Indian) was three to five times higher than predicted from an allometric relationship for smaller mammals. The high thermal conductance of elephants is attributed to the absence of fur and appears to counteract reduced heat transfer associated with a low surface-to-volume ratio.