|The elephants (Elephantidae) are a family in the order Proboscidea in the class Mammalia. They were once classified along with other thick skinned animals in a now invalid order, Pachydermata. There are three living species: the African Bush Elephant, the African Forest Elephant (until recently known collectively as the African Elephant), and the Asian Elephant (also known as the Indian Elephant). Other species have become extinct since the last ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, the Mammoth being the most well-known of these.
The word "elephant" has its origins in the Greek - ἐλέφας, meaning "ivory" or "elephant".
Elephants are mammals, and the largest land animals alive today. The elephant's gestation period is 22 months, the longest of any land animal. At birth it is common for an elephant calf to weigh 120 kilograms (265 lb). An elephant may live as long as 70 years, sometimes longer. The largest elephant ever recorded was shot in Angola in 1956. This male weighed about 12,000 kg (26,400 lb), with a shoulder height of 4.2 m (13.8 ft), a metre (3 ft 4 in) taller than the average male African elephant. The smallest elephants, about the size of a calf or a large pig, were a prehistoric species that lived on the island of Crete during the Pleistocene epoch.
Elephants are symbols of wisdom in Asian cultures, and are famed for their exceptional memory and very high intelligence, on par with cetaceans and hominids.. Aristotle once said the elephant was "the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind."
Elephants are increasingly threatened by human intrusion and poaching. Once numbering in the millions, the African elephant population has dwindled to between 470,000 and 690,000 individuals. The elephant is now a protected species worldwide, with restrictions in place on capture, domestic use, and trade in products such as ivory. Elephants generally have no natural predators, although lions may take calves and occasionally adults. In some areas, lions may regularly take to preying on elephants.
African elephants, at up to 4 m (13 ft 1 in) tall and weighing 7500 kg (8.27 short tons), are usually larger than the Asian species and they have bigger ears. Both male and female African elephants have long tusks, while their Asian counterparts have shorter ones, with those of females vanishingly small. African elephants have a dipped back, smooth forehead and two "fingers" at the tip of their trunks, whereas the Asian have an arched back, two humps on the forehead and only one "finger" at the tip of their trunks.
African elephants are further subdivided into two populations, the Savanna and Forest, and recent genetic studies have led to a reclassification of these as separate species, the forest population now being called Loxodonta cyclotis, and the Savanna (or Bush) population termed Loxodonta africana. This reclassification has important implications for conservation, because it means that where previously it was assumed that a single and endangered species comprised two small populations, if in reality these are two separate species, then as a consequence, both could be more gravely endangered than a more numerous and wide-ranging single species might have been. There is also a potential danger in that, if the forest elephant is not explicitly listed as an endangered species, poachers and smugglers might be able to evade the law forbidding trade in endangered animals and their body parts.
The Forest elephant and the Savanna elephant can hybridise – that is, breed together – successfully, though their preferences for different terrains reduce such opportunities. As the African elephant has only recently been recognized to comprise two separate species, groups of captive elephants have not been comprehensively classified and some could well be hybrids.
Successful hybridization between African and Asian Elephant species is much more unlikely, as is animal hybridization across different genera in general. In 1978, however, at Chester Zoo, an Asian elephant cow gave birth to a hybrid calf sired by an African elephant bull (the old terms are used here as these events pre-date the current classifications). "Motty", the resulting hybrid male calf, had an African elephant's cheeks, their ears (large with pointed lobes) and legs (longer and slimmer), but the toenail numbers, (5 for each front foot, 4 hind) and the single trunk finger of an Asian elephant. His wrinkled trunk was like that of an African elephant. His forehead was sloping with one dome and two smaller domes behind it. The body was African in type, but had an Asian-type centre hump and an African-type rear hump. The calf died of infection 12 days later. It is preserved as a mounted specimen at the British Natural History Museum, London. There are unconfirmed rumors of three other hybrid elephants born in zoos or circuses; all are said to have been deformed and none survived.
African elephants are distinguished from Asian elephants in several ways, the most noticeable being their ears. Africans' ears are much larger and are shaped like the continent of their origin. The African is typically larger than the Asian and has a concave back. Both African males and females have external tusks and are usually less hairy than their Asian cousins.
African elephants have traditionally been classified as a single species comprising two distinct subspecies, namely the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), but recent DNA analysis suggests that these may actually constitute distinct species. While this split is not universally accepted by experts a third species of African elephant has also been proposed.
Under the new two species classification, Loxodonta africana refers specifically to the Savanna Elephant, the largest of all elephants. In fact, it is the largest land animal in the world, standing up to 4 m (13 ft) at the shoulder and weighing approximately 7,000 kg (7.7 tons). The average male stands about 3 m (10 ft) tall at the shoulder and weighs about 5500–6000 kg (6.1–6.6 tons), the female being much smaller. Most often, Savanna Elephants are found in open grasslands, marshes, and lakeshores. They range over much of the savanna zone south of the Sahara.
The other postulated species is the Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Compared with the Savanna Elephant, its ears are usually smaller and rounder, and its tusks thinner and straighter and not directed outwards as much. The Forest Elephant can weigh up to 4,500 kg (10,000 lb) and stand about 3 m (10 ft) tall. Much less is known about these animals than their savanna cousins because environmental and political obstacles make them difficult to study. Normally, they inhabit the dense African rain forests of central and western Africa, though occasionally they roam the edges of forests and so overlap the territories of the Savanna elephants and breed with them. In 1979, Iain Douglas-Hamilton estimated the continental population of African elephants at around 1.3 million animals. This estimate is controversial and is believed to be a gross overestimate, but it is very widely cited and has become a de facto baseline that continues to be incorrectly used to quantify downward population trends in the species. Through the 1980s, Loxodonta received worldwide attention due to the dwindling numbers of major populations in East Africa, largely as a result of poaching. Today, according to IUCN’s African Elephant Status Report 2007 there are approximately between 470,000 and 690,000 African elephants in the wild. Although this estimate only covers about half of the total elephant range, experts do not believe the true figure to be much higher, as it is unlikely that large populations remain to be discovered. By far the largest populations are now found in Southern and Eastern Africa, which together account for the majority of the continental population. According to a recent analysis by IUCN experts, most major populations in Eastern and Southern Africa are stable or have been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s, at an average rate of 4.5% per annum.
Elephant populations in West Africa, on the other hand, are generally small and fragmented, and only account for a small proportion of the continental total. Much uncertainty remains as to the size of the elephant population in Central Africa, where the prevalence of forest makes population surveys difficult, but poaching for ivory and bush-meat is believed to be intense through much of the region.
The world population of Asian elephants – also called Indian Elephants or Elephas maximus – is estimated to be around 60,000, about a tenth of the number of African elephants. More precisely, it is estimated that there are between 38,000 and 53,000 wild elephants and between 14,500 and 15,300 domesticated elephants in Asia with perhaps another 1,000 scattered around zoos in the rest of the world. The Asian elephants' decline has possibly been more gradual with the causes primarily being poaching and habitat destruction by human encroachment.
There are several subspecies of Elephas maximus and some have been identified only using molecular markers. The first subspecies is the Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus). Found only on the island of Sri Lanka, it is the largest of the Asians. There are only an estimated 3,000–4,500 members of this subspecies left today in the wild, although no accurate census has been carried out in the recent past. Large males can weigh upward to 5,400 kg (12,000 lb) and stand over 3.4 m (11 ft) tall. Sri Lankan males have very large cranial bulges, and both sexes have more areas of depigmentation than are found in the other Asians. Typically, their ears, face, trunk, and belly have large concentrations of pink-speckled skin. There is an orphanage for elephants in Pinnawala Sri Lanka, which gives shelter to disabled, injured elephants. This program plays a large role in protecting the Sri Lankan Elephant from extinction.
Another subspecies, the Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) makes up the bulk of the Asian elephant population. Numbering approximately 36,000, these elephants are lighter grey in color, with de-pigmentation only on the ears and trunk. Large males will ordinarily weigh only about 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) but are as tall as the Sri Lankan. The mainland Asian can be found in 11 Asian countries, from India to Indonesia. They prefer forested areas and transitional zones, between forests and grasslands, where greater food variety is available.
The smallest of all the elephants is the Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus). Population estimates for this group range from 2,100 to 3,000 individuals. It is very light grey and has less de-pigmentation than the other Asians, with pink spots only on the ears. Mature Sumatrans will usually only measure 1.7–2.6 m (5.6–8.5 ft) at the shoulder and weigh less than 3,000 kg (6,600 lb). An enormous animal nonetheless, it is considerably smaller than its other Asian (and African) cousins and exists only on the island of Sumatra, usually in forested regions and partially wooded habitats.
In 2003 a further subspecies was identified on Borneo. Named the Borneo pygmy elephant, it is smaller and tamer than other Asian elephants. It also has relatively larger ears, longer tail and straighter tusks.
Most herbivores (plant eaters, like the elephant) possess teeth adapted for cutting and tearing off plant materials. However, except for the very young or infirm, elephants always use their trunks to tear up their food and then place it in their mouth. They will graze on grass or reach up into trees to grasp leaves, fruit, or entire branches. If the desired food item is too high up, the elephant will wrap its trunk around the tree or branch and shake its food loose or sometimes simply knock the tree down altogether.
The trunk is also used for drinking. Elephants suck water up into the trunk (up to fifteen quarts or fourteen liters at a time) and then blow it into their mouth. Elephants also inhale water to spray on their body during bathing. On top of this watery coating, the animal will then spray dirt and mud, which act as a protective sunscreen. When swimming, the trunk makes an excellent snorkel.
This appendage also plays a key role in many social interactions. Familiar elephants will greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake. They also use them while play-wrestling, caressing during courtship and mother / child interactions, and for dominance displays – a raised trunk can be a warning or threat, while a lowered trunk can be a sign of submission. Elephants can defend themselves very well by flailing their trunk at unwanted intruders or by grasping and flinging them.
An elephant also relies on its trunk for its highly developed sense of smell. Raising the trunk up in the air and swiveling it from side to side, like a periscope, it can determine the location of friends, enemies, and food sources.
Like humans who are typically right- or left-handed, elephants are usually right- or left-tusked. The dominant tusk, called the master tusk, is generally shorter and more rounded at the tip from wear. Both male and female African elephants have large tusks that can reach over 3 m (10 ft) in length and weigh over 90 kg (200 lb). In the Asian species, only the males have large tusks. Female Asians have tusks which are very small or absent altogether. Asian males can have tusks as long as the much larger Africans, but they are usually much slimmer and lighter; the heaviest recorded is 39 kg (86 lb). The tusk of both species is mostly made of calcium phosphate in the form of apatite. As a piece of living tissue, it is relatively soft (compared with other minerals such as rock), and the tusk, also known as ivory, is strongly favored by artists for its carvability. The desire for elephant ivory has been one of the major factors in the reduction of the world's elephant population.
Some extinct relatives of elephants had tusks in their lower jaws in addition to their upper jaws, such as Gomphotherium, or only in their lower jaws, such as Deinotherium.
Unlike most mammals, which grow baby teeth and then replace them with a permanent set of adult teeth, elephants have cycles of tooth rotation throughout their entire life. After one year the tusks are permanent, but the molars are replaced six times in an average elephant's lifetime. The teeth do not emerge from the jaws vertically like with human teeth. Instead, they have a horizontal progression, like a conveyor belt. New teeth grow in at the back of the mouth, pushing older teeth toward the front, where they wear down with use and the remains fall out. When an elephant becomes very old, the last set of teeth is worn to stumps, and it must rely on softer foods to chew. Very elderly elephants often spend their last years exclusively in marshy areas where they can feed on soft wet grasses. Eventually, when the last teeth fall out, the elephant will be unable to eat and will die of starvation. Were it not for tooth wearout, their metabolism would allow them to live much longer. Rupert Sheldrake has proposed this as an explanation for the elephant graveyards. However, as more habitat is destroyed, the elephants' living space becomes smaller and smaller; the elderly no longer have the opportunity to roam in search of more appropriate food and will, consequently, die of starvation at an earlier age.
Tusks in the lower jaw are also second incisors. These grew out large in Deinotherium and some mastodons, but in modern elephants they disappear early without erupting.
The species of elephants are typically grayish in color, but the Africans very often appear brown or reddish from wallowing in mud holes of colored soil. Wallowing is an important behavior in elephant society. Not only is it important for socialization, but the mud acts as a sunscreen, protecting their skin from harsh ultraviolet radiation. Though tough, an elephant's skin is very sensitive. Without regular mud baths to protect it from burning, as well as from insect bites and moisture loss, an elephant's skin would suffer serious damage. After bathing, the elephant will usually use its trunk to blow dirt on its body to help dry and bake on its new protective coat. As elephants are limited to smaller and smaller areas, there is less water available, and local herds will often come too close over the right to use these limited resources.
Wallowing also aids the skin in regulating body temperatures. Elephants have difficulty in releasing heat through the skin because, in proportion to their body size, they have very little of it. The ratio of an elephant's mass to the surface area of its skin is many times that of a human. Elephants have even been observed lifting up their legs to expose the soles of their feet, presumably in an effort to expose more skin to the air. Since wild elephants live in very hot climates, they must have other means of getting rid of excess heat.
Legs and feet
The feet of an elephant are nearly round. African elephants have three nails on each hind foot, and four on each front foot. Indian elephants have four nails on each hind foot and five on each front foot. Beneath the bones of the foot is a tough, gelatinous material that acts as a cushion or shock absorber. Under the elephant's weight the foot swells, but it gets smaller when the weight is removed. An elephant can sink deep into mud, but can pull its legs out readily because its feet become smaller when they are lifted.
An elephant is a good swimmer, but it can neither trot, jump, nor gallop. It does have two gaits: a walk, and a faster gait that is similar to running. In walking the legs act as pendulums, with the hips and shoulders rising and falling while the foot is planted on the ground. With no "aerial phase," the faster gait does not meet all the criteria of running, as elephants always have at least one foot on the ground. However an elephant moving fast uses its legs like a running animal does, with the hips and shoulders falling and then rising while the feet are on the ground. In this gait an elephant will have three feet off the ground at one time. As both of the hind feet and both of the front feet are off the ground at the same time, this gait has been likened to the hind legs and the front legs taking turns running. Although they start this "run" at only 8 km/h, elephants may reach 25 km/h, all the while using the same gait. At this speed most other four-legged creatures are well into a gallop, even with leg length accounted for. Spring-like kinetics may explain the difference between the motion of these and other animals.
The largest areas in elephant brain are those responsible for hearing, smell and movement coordination, and a large portion of the brain has to do with trunk management and sensitivity.
The social circle of the female elephant does not end with the small family unit. In addition to encountering the local males that live on the fringes of one or more groups, the female's life also involves interaction with other families, clans, and subpopulations. Most immediate family groups range from five to fifteen adults, as well as a number of immature males and females. When a group gets too big, a few of the elder daughters will break off and form their own small group. They remain very aware of which local herds are relatives and which are not.
The life of the adult male is very different. As he gets older, he begins to spend more time at the edge of the herd, gradually going off on his own for hours or days at a time. Eventually, days become weeks, and somewhere around the age of fourteen, the mature male, or bull, sets out from his natal group for good. While males do live primarily solitary lives, they will occasionally form loose associations with other males. These groups are called bachelor herds. The males spend much more time than the females fighting for dominance with each other. Only the most dominant males will be permitted to breed with cycling females. The less dominant ones must wait their turn. It is usually the older bulls, forty to fifty years old, that do most of the breeding.
The dominance battles between males can look very fierce, but typically they inflict very little injury. Most of the bouts are in the form of aggressive displays and bluffs. Ordinarily, the smaller, younger, and less confident animal will back off before any real damage can be done. However, during the breeding season, the battles can get extremely aggressive, and the occasional elephant is injured. During this season, known as musth, a bull will fight with almost any other male it encounters, and it will spend most of its time hovering around the female herds, trying to find a receptive mate.
The first sound a newborn calf usually makes is a sneezing or snorting sound to clear its nasal passages of fluids In the first few minutes after a captive birth, the keepers must monitor the calf closely for the first sound or movement. Whichever happens first, the mother typically responds to her new baby with surprise and excitement. With the help of its mother, a newborn calf usually struggles to its feet within 30 minutes of birth. For support, it will often lean against its mother's legs. A newborn calf usually stands within one hour and is strong enough to follow its mother in a slowly moving herd within a few days.
Unlike most mammals, female elephants have a single pair of mammary glands located just behind the front legs. When born, a calf is about 90 centimeters (3 feet) high, just tall enough to reach its mother's nipples. A calf suckles with its mouth, not its trunk, which has no muscle tone. To clear the way to its mouth so it can suckle, the calf will flop its trunk onto its forehead. A newborn calf suckles for only a few minutes at a time but many times per day, consuming up to 11 liters (3 U.S. gallons) of milk in a single day. A calf may nurse for up to 2 years or more. Complete weaning depends on the disposition of the mother, the amount of available milk, and the arrival of another calf.
Newborn calves learn mainly by observing adults, not from instinct. For example, a calf learns how to use its trunk by watching older elephants using their trunks. It takes several months for a calf to control the use of its trunk. This can be observed as the calf trips over its trunk or as the trunk wiggles like a rubbery object when the calf shakes its head.
After a twenty-two-month pregnancy, the mother will give birth to a calf that will weigh about 113 kg (250 lb) and stand over 76 cm (2.5 ft) tall. Elephants have a very long childhood. They are born with fewer survival instincts than many other animals. Instead, they must rely on their elders to teach them the things they need to know. Today, however, the pressures humans have put on the wild elephant populations, from poaching to habitat destruction, mean that the elderly often die at a younger age, leaving fewer teachers for the young.
All members of the tightly knit female group participate in the care and protection of the young. Since everyone in the herd is related, there is never a shortage of baby-sitters. In fact, a new calf is usually the centre of attention for all herd members. All the adults and most of the other young will gather around the newborn, touching and caressing it with their trunks. The baby is born nearly blind and at first relies, almost completely, on its trunk to discover the world around it.
Effect on the environment
Elephants' foraging activities affect the areas in which they live:
Threat of extinction
As larger patches of forest disappear, the ecosystem is affected in profound ways. The trees are responsible for anchoring soil and absorbing water runoff. Floods and massive erosion are common results of deforestation. Elephants need massive tracts of land because, much like the slash-and-burn farmers, they are used to crashing through the forest, tearing down trees and shrubs for food and then cycling back later on, when the area has re-grown. As forests are reduced to small pockets, elephants become part of the problem, quickly destroying all the vegetation in an area, eliminating all their resources.
There were many problems in establishing these reserves. For example, elephants range through a wide tract of land with little regard for national borders. However, when most parks were created, the boundaries were drawn at the human-made borders of individual countries. Once a fence was erected, many animals found themselves cut off from their winter feeding grounds or spring breeding areas. Some animals died as a result, while some, like the elephants, just trampled through the fences. This did little to belie their image as a crop-raiding pest. The more often an elephant wandered off its reserve, the more trouble it got into, and the more chance it had of being shot by an angry farmer. When confined to small territories, elephants can inflict an enormous amount of damage to the local landscapes. Today there are still many problems associated with these parks and reserves, but there is now little question as to whether or not they are necessary. As scientists learn more about nature and the environment, it becomes very clear that these parks may be the elephant's last hope against the rapidly changing world around them.
Additionally, Kruger National Park has suffered from elephant overcrowding, at the expense of other species of wildlife within the reserve. South Africa slaughtered 14,562 elephants in the reserve between 1967 and 1994; it stopped in 1995, mostly due to international and local pressure. Without action, it is predicted that the elephant population in Kruger National Park will triple to 34,000 by 2020.
Humanity and elephants
Harvest from the wild
It is possible, if unlikely, that continued selection pressure could bring about a complete absence of tusks in African elephants, a development normally requiring thousands of years of evolution. The effect of tusk less elephants on the environment, and on the elephants themselves, could be dramatic. Elephants use their tusks to root around in the ground for necessary minerals, tear apart vegetation, and spar with one another for mating rights. Without tusks, elephant behavior could change dramatically.
Domestication and use
War elephants were used by armies in the Indian sub-continent, and later by the Persian empire. This use was adopted by Hellenistic armies after Alexander the Great experienced their worth against king Porus, notably in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid diadoch empires. The Carthaginian general Hannibal took elephants across the Alps when he was fighting the Romans, but brought too few elephants to be of much military use, although his horse cavalry was quite successful; he probably used a now-extinct third African (sub) species, the North African (Forest) elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate. A large elephant in full charge could cause tremendous damage to infantry, and cavalry horses would be afraid of them.
Throughout Siam, India, and most of South Asia elephants were used in the military for heavy labor, especially for uprooting trees and moving logs, and were also commonly used as executioners to crush the condemned underfoot.
Elephants have also been used as mounts for safari-type hunting, especially Indian shikar (mainly on tigers), and as ceremonial mounts for royal and religious occasions, whilst Asian elephants have been used for transport and entertainment, and are common to circuses around the world.
African elephants have long been reputed to not be domesticable, but some entrepreneurs have succeeded by bringing Asian mahouts from Sri Lanka to Africa. In Botswana, Uttum Corea has been working with African elephants and has several young tame elephants near Gaborone. African elephants are more temperamental than Asian elephants, but are easier to train. Because of their more sensitive temperaments, they require different training methods than Asian elephants and must be trained from infancy hence Corea worked with orphaned elephants. African elephants are now being used for (photo) safaris. Corea's elephants are also used to entertain tourists and haul logs.
Elephants are also commonly exhibited in zoos and wild animal parks, the former of which has caused controversy. Animal rights advocates allege that elephants in zoos "suffer a life of chronic physical ailments, social deprivation, emotional starvation, and premature death". However, zoos argue that standards for treatment of elephants are extremely high and that minimum requirements for such things as minimum space requirements, enclosure design, nutrition, reproduction, enrichment and veterinary care are set to ensure the wellbeing of elephants in captivity.
Musth is linked to sexual arousal or establishing dominance, but this relationship is far from clear. Numerous cases of elephant goring and killing of rhinoceroses in national parks in Africa have been documented and attributed to musth in young male elephants, especially those growing in the absence of older males. Studies show that reintroducing older males into the population seem to have the effect of preventing younger males from entering musth, and therefore, stopping their aggressive behavior.
A musth elephant, wild or domesticated, is extremely dangerous to humans. Domesticated elephants in India are traditionally tied to a tree and denied food and water for several days, after which the musth passes. In zoos, musth is often the cause of fatal accidents to elephant keepers. Zoos keeping adult male elephants need extremely secure enclosures, which greatly complicates the attempts to breed elephants in zoos.
Musth is accompanied by a significant rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor is unknown: scientific investigation of musth is greatly hindered by the fact that even the most otherwise placid of elephants may actively try to kill any and all humans. Similarly, the tar-like secretion remains largely uncharacterized, due to the difficulties of collecting a sample for analysis.
Although it has often been speculated that musth is linked to rut, this is unlikely, because the female elephant's estrus cycle is not seasonally-linked. Furthermore, bulls in musth have often been known to attack female elephants, regardless of whether or not the females are in heat.
The Hindi word "musth" is from the Urdu mast, which in turn is from a Persian root meaning "intoxicated".
The Channel 5 British television program "The Dark Side of Elephants" (March 20, 2006) stated that during musth:
Predators, parasites and diseases
Elephants have a variety of both ecto-parasites and endo-parasites, including the highly specialized flies of the genus Cobboldia.
1. The Elephant population in Vietnam and Laos is undergoing tests to determine if it is a fifth subspecies.
2. The Subfamily Lophodontinae or Rhynchotheriinae, are placed by some authors within the gomphotheres, while others consider them as true Elephantidae.
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