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For flight, of course.
Okay, in all seriousness, Elephants have big ears to help them stay cool. Weird, right? Let me explain.
When you get hot, you sweat.
When Elephants get hot, well, they don’t sweat. So what’s a 13 foot tall and 13,000-pound animal to do? I mean, not only do they produce tons of body heat for their literal tons, but Elephants in general—African and Asian—tend to live in some pretty warm places.
That’s where their big ole ears come in.
Elephant ears are a lot thinner than they look, and they are filled with a network of tiny blood vessels. Since the ears are thin, those blood vessels are able to release a lot of heat to the outside environment. In other words, Elephant bodies attract and generate a bunch of heat, and their ears help to release it.
If we wanted to get super geeky about this, we could, and we will.
Heat is energy. When air is hot, that’s just another way of saying the air has a lot of energy, and the atoms and molecules of gas floating about are all kinds of hyper and have tons of kinetic energy. When they collide with atoms with less energy/less heat/less movement, some of that energy gets transferred. The hot cools and the cool heats. It’s called thermodynamics and there are a few laws about it. Hotter things flow to cooler things, but ultimately it’s all about balance. The inside of the Elephant is hotter than the outside, so the heat can transfer from their ears to the environment.
Of course, the ears have a more mechanical function, too, acting as big giant 6-foot skin-fans. The words skin and fan may be gross put together, but they can cool down an Elephant by almost 10 degrees!
This adaptation varies among Elephant types. For instance, Asian Elephants which live in a less hot climate than African Elephants have smaller ears. Why? Less a need to cool down.
Now the only question I have is, why do people’s ears look bigger the older they get?