Here's Why Elephants Always Look Like They're Crying

Elephants are the largest land animal in the world. According to Britannica, African elephants can reach weights of nine tons while Asian elephants can be around six tons. Elephants are also one of the most social and intelligent animals. They live in multi-generational herds wherein they protect each other's calves and are led by an adult matriarch. Scientists have long studied the behaviors of elephants given their intelligence. This includes exploring their emotional capacities as well. It is easy to see emotions such as anger and happiness in animals closer to home, like dogs and cats. But, elephants can be harder to read on the outside.

Elephants often have what appears to be wetness near their eyes. Does this mean that they can cry tears like humans? In 2013, Metro reported that an elephant calf wept for hours after its mother stomped on him in a show of rejection. Veterinarians stepped in to separate the two and treat the calf's injuries. Was this a physical response to emotion or a different biological aspect of elephants?

Elephants do not have tear ducts

Tear ducts keep our eyes from drying out. However, scientists claim that elephants do not actually have tear ducts. They do not have any lacrimal glands (which produce tear fluid) and no mechanism for liquid drainage (which goes into the nose) either. However, they still need some sort of lubrication for their eyes, as do all mammals. What makes an elephant's eyes different is that the fluid-producing gland on their third eyelids is utilized more than on other mammals. Elephants also have sebaceous glands that produce sebum. This creates the liquid layer that other mammals have (via Why Animals Do the Thing).

David Smith of Safari Nerd explains that an elephant's lack of the usual mammal eye lubrication systems is likely due to their ancestry. Previous species of animal similar to the modern-day elephant were semi-aquatic. Therefore, they did not have a need for tear ducts. As previously mentioned, elephants also do not have a mechanism to drain fluid from their eyes. This is why it accumulates around their eyes and makes it seem as though they are crying. 

Elephants express emotion in other ways

There is no real concensus among scientists regarding whether or not elephants cry out of sadness. Some scientists believe that humans are the only creatures who produce tears in response to emotions, but others do not rule out the possibility of this response in other animals (per CBC). The high level of cognition that elephants possess makes it hard to disregard emotions entirely.

Despite the fact that an elephant's "tears" are likely not part of a physical response to emotion, elephants have been known to express emotion in other ways. Elephants have been seen covering up the bones of deceased elephants as if they realize that the remains are from an elephant. They also make noises when happy and do not leave injured herd members behind (via Bali Safari).

Elephants are one of the world's most iconic animals, but they are endangered. African elephants are hunted for their tusks and population growth has put them in contact with humans. National Geographic reports that Asian elephants have lost half of their total populations in the past 75 years. That is enough to make me cry, at least.