The African forest elephant was once considered to be a subspecies, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, of the African elephant, together with the African bush elephant. DNA tests, however, indicated that the two populations were much more genetically distinct than previously believed. In 2010, a genetic study confirmed they are separate species which diverged from each other an estimated two to seven million years ago. Still, many governmental (e.g. USFWS) and non-governmental agencies (e.g. IUCN) consider the forest elephant to be a subspecies for regulatory and conservation purposes. In 2016, DNA sequence analysis showed that L. cyclotis is more closely related to the extinct European straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, than it is to L. africana.
The disputed pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, formerly considered to be a separate species (Loxodonta pumilio) are probably forest elephants whose diminutive size or early maturity is due to environmental conditions.
Generally, these forest-dwelling elephants are smaller and darker than their savanna relatives, the bush elephants. The species normally has five toenails on the forefoot and four on the hind foot, like the Asian elephant but unlike the African bush elephant which normally has four toenails on the forefoot and three on the hind foot. They also protect themselves from the sun by using sand.
A male African forest elephant rarely exceeds 2.5 m (8.2 ft) in height, considerably smaller than the bush species which is usually over 3 m (9.8 ft) and sometimes almost 4 m (13.1 ft) tall. L. cyclotis reportedly weighs around 2.7 tonnes (5,950 lb), with the largest specimens attaining 6 tonnes (13,230 lb). Pygmy elephants of the Congo Basin, presumed to be a subgroup of L. cyclotis, have reportedly weighed as little as 900 kg (1,980 lb) as adults.
Elephants have sensitive skin which can make them prone to sunburn, especially when young. The wrinkles in the elephants skin help keep them cool by giving heat a larger surface area through which it can dissipate. The creases in the hide of the elephant trap and absorb moisture longer than one with smooth skin; that prolongs the evaporation process, which sanctions the elephant to release up to 75 percent of its body heat. Since these elephants live in areas where temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 °C) in the daytime, the forest elephants skin in significantly more wrinkled than Asian elephants.