A New Exhibit on The Secret World of Elephants at the American Museum of Natural History

The Secret World of Elephants, a new interactive exhibition  at the American Museum of Natural History, explores the astounding minds, bodies, and interactions of the Earth's largest land mammals. (And notes the urgency of conservation, with the species now down to only three surviving types—African savanna elephants, African forest elephants, and Asian elephants.)

The Secret World of Elephants AMNH

The exhibition features a life-size model of an African elephant—the largest living land animal. A video projection on one side of the African elephant model shows the skeleton of this massive mammal and provides an inside look at how it processes the huge amount of food it eats—about 300–500 pounds per day—and elephant gestation, which can last for nearly two years, longer than any other living mammal.
Alvaro Keding/© AMNH.

How do elephants “hear” with their feet, use the 16 muscles in their trunks, or reshape the forests and savannas they live in, creating an environment upon which many other species rely? This exhibit reveals new data about both modern and ancient elephant relatives, and explores the capacity of their intelligence, emotions (they remember their feelings even if separated for many years), and senses, why they're essential to the health of their ecosystems, and inspiring efforts to overcome threats to their survival. 

Visitors can explore a multitude of interactive stations where they will be quizzed on elephant body language (friendly or not friendly) , listen to different elephant vocalizations (greetings, courtship, play, mourning), and touch teeth—one from a mammoth and one from a mastodon-like species.

According to fossil evidence, proboscideans (elephants and their close relatives) date back to not long after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, about 60 million years ago. More than 200 species of probscideans evolved over time.

"Elephants are the world's largest land animal, but we understand surprisingly little about them," says The Secret World of Elephants curator Ross MacPhee. "We know elephants face an uncertain future. The global demand for ivory, along with climate change and habitat loss, are pushing them along the path to extinction. If we don't act quickly, elephants could be gone before we truly get to know them." 

Dwarf Elephant

The Dwarf elephant (infant pictured), or Palaeloxodon falconeri, is about the size of a bulldog and lived in what is now Sicily approximately 450,000 years ago. Photo by Linda Sheridan.

One species that will have kids craving their own pet elephant is the Dwarf elephant (Palaeloxodon falconeri) that lived in Sicily, Italy, some 450,000 years ago. The infant was roughly the size of a bulldog, and the adult was only several hundred pounds. 

The exhibition also features a documentary film about an all-female run elephant sanctuary in northern Kenya called Reteti, owned by the local Samburu community, which takes in orphaned and abandoned elephant calves with the aim of releasing them back into wild herds. The video tells the story of Shaba, a 15-month old orphaned female who grew to become the sanctuary’s first matriarch.

 For more information, visit

About the Author

Linda Sheridan is the Managing Editor for City Guide. She is a lifelong New Yorker, has written for the New York Daily News, and loves travel, writing, music, and space.

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