This is a submission for the Anatomically Correct Series.

High Fantasy Elf

Elves are a supernatural creature from Germanic cultures. Their appearances and abilities vary a lot in fiction and mythology but things they have in common are generally pointy ears, supernatural senses, and very long lifespans. There are some other aspects associated with elves like supernatural beauty and love for the forest but those are more subjective and cultural.

Is there any biological reason for humanoids to evolve pointy ears. Is there also a biological way for a humanoid to have a very long lifespan or even be immune to aging?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not only did they evolve pointy ears, they did it extremely fast. Traditional elves did not have pointy ears. The first pointy-eared elves appeared in the 19th century, as an adaptation to the need of illustrators of children's books to show a clear sign that a character was an elf -- children are not known for their long attention spans and attention to details. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 21:21

3 Answers 3



The Ears

Pointed, protruding ears exist in mammal species because they are better for 360° hearing, whereas our ears are better for hearing from the front but not so much behind. So, put your elves in an environment where hearing in every direction is advantageous (e.g. natural predators).

The Lifespan

What causes aging?

The effects of aging are caused by cell senescence. Every time a cell undergoes mitosis, the telomeres on its DNA get shorter (telomeres are like a protective buffer segment that doesn't actually store any information). When these decay enough and the important DNA starts getting damaged, the body tells them to stop dividing. But, they do continue metabolizing, taking up resources and acting incorrectly. Sometimes they even start dividing as fast as they can, which is known as cancer.

Real-world examples

Like having pointed ears, there are some animals that age very little, if at all.

In naked mole rats, the cellular senescence mechanism doesn't just halt mitosis, it tells them to shut down and die so they can't cause any problems. This makes them more-or-less ageless, and also quite cancer-resistant.

In lobsters, the body continues to generate the enzyme telomerase, which causes telomere regeneration, throughout adulthood. In other animals, telomerase production stops after the embryonic phase. So, lobsters' telomeres never decay, so their DNA stays in pristine shape and they don't age. That being said, cancer cells also rely on telomerase to divide indefinitely, so they don't get the same cancer resistance as naked mole rats.


Something you'll want to consider though is why they live longer. There's a reason why natural selection didn't cause age prevention to evolve in most animals⁠—it doesn't help population proliferation. Elves will need to continue having children throughout their entire lives for such long lifespans to make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Family trees might look a little weird.

This could even tie into the predator presence mentioned in the section on pointed ears. Maybe they keep reproducing because they take a long time to reach adulthood where they can adequately fend for themselves. If elven parents don't stay with their offspring for that long, many will not reach maturity. Hence the need to keep making more.


Elves are humans.

  1. They trim their ears to points as a coming of age ceremony. There are weirder trimmings that happen as coming of age ceremonies. Ears is not so bad.

  2. They look alike, because there are not that many of them and they got pretty inbred. Luckily there were good genes starting out so they are alike looking hotties.

  3. They live longer than other human groups but not crazy long. But when outsiders show up an elf will often say he is his own great grandfather and the people say "whoah!". This is where #2 comes in. Sildenafil of the Long Wood does look very much like his great grandfather, who was also named Sildenafil. And people want to believe what Sil says because of his pointy ears and smokingly hot deep violet eyes.


Long Life

Let's limit this to "Biologically Immortality:" creatures not susceptible to effects of aging, low or non-existent cancer rates, and generally meaning death comes by predator or disease.

Lobsters, planarians, and jellies are given as examples of biologically immortal creatures. They are of interest to those studying senescence, with the hope that some of these mechanisms could yield medical applications.

Another item of interest is preventing cancer. Large mammals and other groups of mammals have very low rates of cancer. Once again, these are studied in the hopes of preventing and treating cancer in humans.

All this to say that there is no reason, to my knowledge, that these traits could not be developed in a humanoid creature. Magic, mad science, gods, or just dumb (evolutionary) luck could result in our elves. Maybe biological immortality was achieved very early on by freak coincidence in this world, sometime in whatever stands in for the Cambrian era. Assuming it's not selected against and retained, this would be followed by a mammal ancestor that got big, solved the cancer issue, and then got smaller and humanoid.

This would be different from the "live fast, die young" strategy that served the small mammals who went on to become humans. Biological immortality sounds great, there just few pressures to develop it.

Ear Shape

As you may know, the primary function of the outer ear is to focus sound into the ear canal. Larger ears generally mean better or more well directed hearing in animals, but it is unclear if a self-styled ear would help or hinder this. The larger area to receive and sense vibrations could possibly help explain the keen hearing of elves as well.

An alternative to functional explanations is sexual selection. Maybe elves find pointed ears attractive and thus better mates. It isn't unusual to find interesting bodies and displays related to sexual selection in nature. Why not have elves talk about ear size the same way some people talk about men's hands?

Interestingly, Williams Syndrome is theorized to be an origin of the idea of human-sized elves and individuals afflicted have pointier ears. However, there are plenty of undesirable effects with Williams that just won't do for a fantasy elf! This just shows that some of these traits are possible, even plausible, on a humanoid.


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