When you see pictures of elephants, you generally notice their massive size, large ears, trunk and tusks, but rarely do you think about hair. When I mention hair and elephants at the same time, most people think of woolly mammoths and mastodons that had long shaggy coats of thick hair, but few think of elephants that live today.
Yet, elephants, like all mammals, do have hair. Some people may try to argue that not all mammals have hair and point to dolphins and whales, but they would be wrong. Dolphins and whales do have hair during part of their embryonic development. Most dolphins lose that hair just before or right after being born. A few species of dolphins have small hairs on tip of their rostrum (snout).
A number of whales retain hair into adulthood. The bumps on the head of a humpback whale contain hair follicles. Right whales have hair on their chins and upper jaw and bowhead whales have hair growing around their blowhole, chin, lips and snout.
From a distance, elephants look completely hairless, but once you get up close you will see that they have stiff coarse hairs on various parts of their body. The most noticeable hair on an elephant can be found around the eyes, tip of the trunk, the ears and on the tail.
For years, most biologists have believed that hair was designed to keep animals warmer in colder climates like the woolly mammoths during the Ice Age. Animals that lived in warmer climates need less hair, or so the theory went.
A team of scientists from Princeton University led by Conor Myhrvold have proposed a new theory about epidermal hair in mammals. Their theory recognized that body hair in colder climates help to keep animals warmer, but as the climate gets warmer the body hair becomes sparser to prevent the animal from overheating. But there comes a point, like in the African and Asian elephants, where what hair does remain, actually serves to help the animal dissipate body heat and stay cooler in the hotter climates.