If I only had a heart

What can an elephant tell us about heart health? Nick Duggan explains.

If I only had a heart
Image Wallpaper Flare.

It's not just humans who need to look after their heart health. A former curator of the Medical Sciences Learning Centre at The University of Auckland shares an unusual story about an elephant who once lived at Auckland Zoo.

"This is a section through the heart of an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) named Melanie, who died at the Auckland Zoo in 1971, aged 18 years. While Asian elephants can live up to 60 years, life expectancy in captivity is variable and many elephants tend to die much younger.

"If you look closely, you'll see significant fatty deposits surrounding Melanie's heart. While a pathologist's examination of her heart failed to find a cardiac cause for her death, the presence of such large amounts of fat is unhealthy.

"This may have been due to diet - elephants in zoos 50 or more years ago were often fed bread and other foods more associated with humans than elephants, with obesity a long-recognised issue for elephants in captivity."

In the late 1800s, an elephant at London Zoo was fed whiskey and sticky buns.
Image Description
Poster of Jumbo the Elephant by unknown creator. Commons Wikimedia.

"In the late 1800s London Zoo's legendary African elephant, Jumbo, ate sticky buns brought along by the public and was even given whiskey by his keeper. Sadly Jumbo died aged 25, not from heart disease, but by being hit by a train.

"These days zoo animal diets are strictly controlled and their body weight closely monitored.

"A whole Asian elephant's heart can weigh 19 kg, whereas the larger African elephant's heart may weigh as much as 28 kg."

Image Description
This vintage illustration shows the prominent central position of an elephant's heart, which beats around 30 times per minute.

"Elephants and giraffes have blood pressures of around 200 and 240 mmHG respectively, which is roughly twice that of humans. Their hearts and vessels have adapted to withstand these haemodynamic forces (that are not sustainable in humans), however their heart rate is about half that of ours at around 30 beats per minute."

Nick Duggan is a former manager of the AMRF Medical Sciences Learning Centre – Whakaaro Pai, at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, at The University of Auckland.

Melanie's heart was on display in the AMRF Medical Sciences Centre at The University of Auckland, until it was gifted to the Auckland Medical Museum Trust for the Brave Hearts exhibition.