Unpack the trunk, African savanna elephant

Unpack the trunk, African savanna elephant

Three bull African savanna elephants with sleepy looking eyes lumbered quietly by my parked safari vehicle with their straight trunks lowered close to the ground. The lead bull’s long trunk slightly veered towards the vehicle but then straightened out and appeared to sniff along the dirt road as it walked. Still stationary in my vehicle, an adult female approached the front of it while quietly flapping her large ears back and forth for cooling and switching her swishing tail from side to side implying relaxed behavior. She then parked herself in front of me, rested her trunk on her tusk, crossed her back legs, and appeared to take a nap!

That one photo inspired me to research African elephant trunks. (I guarantee you will learn something new or you will receive a full refund.)

Let’s start with the basics. The elephant’s trunk is a flexible, boneless, muscular appendage formed by the fusion of the nose and upper lip. African elephants sport two finger-like projections on the trunk tip. Asian species have one “finger” on the upper tip while the lower tip looks like a fat lip and still functions well. Two nostrils, supported by cartilaginous rings, run up the 7 ft long trunk or about the length of a giraffe neck! Within the trunk 40,000 muscles along with 400,000 nerve endings provide this amazing nose with diverse uses. By the way, trunks can weigh 200-350 pounds even without any junk. Puts a new meaning in head strong.

Two projections on African elephant’s trunk tip

African savanna elephant nostrils

Shortened trunk

Same trunk extended

We are generally familiar with many trunk functions including breathing, smelling, drinking, touching, gripping, pushing, pulling, and lifting food into the mouth. But when we look at those functions closer, more is revealed unexpectedly and has already inspired diverse human-made robots.  One flexible robot can refuel ships under different ocean conditions. Another can carry air or water to trapped victims beneath debris. Scientists continue to research how the trunk moves its muscles, its suction power, and how it grasps to influence robot design.

In reference to suction, we all know the elephant can suck up water into its trunk and  then put the trunk into their mouths to drink. Also, they may spray it onto their bodies or other herd members. Plus they also use suction to draw up mud and/or dust into their trunk to then spray onto their bodies to prevent sunburn and insect bites. And yes, they may eat that mud to obtain minerals. However, scientists recently discovered the elephant can use suction to pick up small quantities of food or a single flat item like a small leaf. Until this study only fishes were thought to have that suction food gathering power.

Elephant loading up trunk with water

Two elephants squirting water into their mouths to drink.

Another study showed that the elephant sense of smell is greater than any land mammal with millions of chemical and olfactory receptor cells in the upper nasal cavities. It can detect TNT in bombs, distinguish between two Kenyan tribes, one which has killed elephants with spears and the other that never did, and can smell water and food around twelve miles away. Plus it can even detect favorite plant foods and those it doesn’t like and the quantities of each!

An elephant smells potential food

Elephants can discern favorite food plants and the quantity of them from miles away

But scientists have also learned the trunk forms a temporary joint to pile up food for easier access! We probably haven’t thought how different the wrinkly top side of the trunk compares with the skin folds underneath the trunk. In a study to identify how far an elephant could stretch its trunk, scientists did compare the top to the bottom. Astonishingly, the underneath folds make a joint that stretches 15 % farther than the top! Those skin folds help protect the bottom of the trunk and can also stretch when wrapping the trunk is necessary. Wrapping is the most common grip when picking up items. Plus those skin folds are stiffer than the wrinkles and require 13 percent more energy to stretch! Of course both the top and bottom of the trunk help with strength and extensibility.

A common grip using the trunk “joint” for wrapping

Top wrinkles and bottom folds of skin on elephant’s trunk

Wrinkly top of trunk with folds underneath, side view

Bottom view of trunk skin folds

Whoever thought wrinkles were good? Just as an aside, elephant skin is 1 inch thick. Wrinkles and folds hold up to 10 times more water than flat skin which helps them cool down. Maybe that’s why I’m so cold all the time!

Stay tuned for Part 2 as we will learn about breathing strength, the use of trunks in communication and touching,  pointing direction, picking up vibrations, behavior based on trunk position, and other fascinating features of a remarkable organ.


DISCLAIMER: References do not agree.,per%20second%2F330%20mph).

Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her monthly column features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and also wildlife beyond the Yucatan.

Contact:  All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo