The elephant trunk is truly a wonder of nature. There is no other animal in the world with a comparable appendage, though animals such as the tapir, anteater, and elephant shrew all have variations on a theme.
But what exactly is an elephant trunk for – a kind of nose, a mouth part, or something else entirely? In this article, we delve into the detail of the elephant’s trunk to discover its, structure, uses, superpowers, and some fun elephant trunk facts.
What is an elephant’s trunk?
Let’s start with the absolute basics, by looking at the dictionary definition of the elephant trunk:
“The elongated, prehensile nose of an elephant.”
So the trunk is indeed the elephant’s nose. In fact, an elephant’s trunk is a combination of the nose and upper lip of an elephant’s mouth.
In zoology, an organ like this is called a proboscis and is used for specific reasons. The word proboscis comes from this the Greek meaning, “to feed, to nourish”. Do you know how a butterfly drinks nectar from flowers? By using their proboscis. It’s the same for elephants, but the difference lies in the size and strength of the elephant’s proboscis.
Then there’s the word ‘prehensile’ in the dictionary definition, another zoological term. Prehensile means:
“Able to take hold of and clasp objects; adapted for grasping especially by wrapping around an object”.
The word prehensile refers to an important use of the elephant’s trunk, to grip and lift things, but as you’ll see, the elephant trunk is capable of much more than this alone.
Structure of the elephant trunk
The elongated elephant’s trunk measures between 2 and 3 meters long, and is perhaps the most important part of the elephant’s body – specialized to help the animal in their fight for survival.
An elephant trunk has no bones, a small amount of fat, and close to 40,000 separate muscles (compared to 600 muscles in the entire human body). There are two types of muscles in the trunk:
- Superficial muscles (dorsals, ventrals, laterals)
- Internal muscles (transverse, radiating)
The trunk is connected to the elephant’s head by a bony opening of its skull. Running from the brain to the trunk is a special proboscis nerve for controlling the trunks’ pinpoint movements.
Before birth, the trunk and upper lip of the elephant fetus are not connected together. After birth the muscles of the elephant calf start to develop, and eventually, the upper lip joins with the nose to form a fully-working trunk.
Uses of the elephant trunk
In his renowned paper Understanding proboscidean evolution (1998) J. Shoshani suggests elephant trunks have several functions. These include a broad range of functions including tasks like breathing, smelling, touching, grasping, and sound production. Here is some more detail on the main uses of the elephant’s trunk:
The elephant trunk is a type of nose, so it helps them to breathe. Using their trunks to breathe is something that’s most exquisitely demonstrated when elephant need to swim across a deep body of water, and use their trunks as a snorkel. A real treat to see on any safari!
Enhanced sense of smell
According to zoologists, their trunks give elephants an incredibly powerful sense of smell – twice as sensitive as a bloodhound. It can smell of food and water from incredibly long distances – up to 19 kilometers by some accounts.
And the benefit of a long nose that that if they smell anything foul they don’t have to hold their breath, but can turn their trunks elsewhere to breathe!
There are a number of different ways elephants use their large trunks for heavy tasking. Using their trunks, elephants are able to:
- Lift close to 300 kilograms.
- Tear bark off a tree.
- Dig into the ground for drinking water.
- Break large branches off a tree.
The delicate stuff
It’s not only heavy tasks that elephants use their trunks for. They use it in a number of delicate ways too, such as wiping its eyes and face, picking leaves and fruits from the branches of a tree up to 7 meters high, and plucking their favorite grasses out of the ground to eat.
In fact, an elephant is able to crack a monkey nutshell with its trunk, without breaking the nuts. That’s a seriously dexterous feat!
Playing and showing affection
An elephant rubbing another elephant with its trunk is nothing but an act of compassion, pure love! An elephant rubs its trunk or holds another elephant’s trunk to show affection. Young elephants use their trunks while playing and spray dust or grass at each other to form bonds and have fun with their elephant friends.
An adult African elephant can store 12 liters of water in its trunk! They commonly suck up water using their trunk and spray it over their bodies to helps them stay cool in hot environments.
African vs Asian elephant trunk
The African elephant trunk and Asian elephant trunk are actually designed slightly differently.
An African elephant’s trunk has more visible rings on it, and is not as hard to the touch as the Asian elephant trunk. Asian elephants have more trunk muscles than African elephants, which helps them to do more complex things.
The ends of their trunks are also very different – the African elephant trunk has two distinct ‘fingers’ which they use to pick up and manipulate objects. The Asian elephant has only one ‘finger’ at the end of its trunk, which they compensate for by holding objects against the underside of the trunk.
Still not sure of the differences between an African and Asian Elephant?
Frequently asked questions about the elephant’s trunk”
What is the trunk of an elephant?
The elephant trunk is a combination of the nose and upper lip of its mouth, technically a proboscis. The elephant trunk acts like both a mouth and a nose. It helps them to do a variety of things like gripping, drinking, smelling, and showing love.
Why does an elephant have a trunk?
The elephant trunk is a specially adapted body part used for a wide range of purposes. These include breathing, eating, gripping, drinking, smelling, rubbing, and more.
How does an elephant trunk work?
An elephant trunk is prehensile and works by the precise movements of the muscles inside it. It is controlled by these muscles, and the proboscis nerve, which helps them move their trunk whichever way they want.
Do elephant trunks have bones?
Elephant trunks don’t have bones. It has a little amount of fat but is primarily a muscular organ. There are close to 40,000 muscles in an elephant trunk!
What are some elephant trunk facts?
- There are close to 40,000 muscles in an elephant trunk.
- The elephant trunk is a combination of the nose and upper lip of its mouth, technically a proboscis.
- The elephant uses its trunk for breathing, eating, gripping, drinking, smelling, rubbing, and more.
- Their trunks give elephants a very powerful sense of smell – twice as sensitive as a bloodhound.
- Elephants can smell food and water from up to 19 kilometers away.
- African elephants can lift close to 300 kilograms with their trunks.
- An elephant is able to crack a monkey nutshell with its trunk, without breaking the nut.
And that’s your lot for our take on the elephant trunk. Did any of this surprise you, or any relevant elephant trunk facts you think we should add? Please do join in using the comments section below!