An elephant trunk is a wonder of nature. There are no other animals in the world that have a comparable trunk, 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 – its definition, structure, uses, fun facts, and more.
this is no ordinary nose, it’s one with super-powers.
Defining an elephant trunk
Let’s start with 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 its size and strength.
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”.
This refers to an important use of the elephant’s trunk… but the trunk is capable of much more than this alone.
Structure of an elephant trunk
Their elongated trunk – measuring between 2 to 3 meters – is perhaps the most important part of the elephant’s body, specialized to help an elephant in the fight for survival.
An elephant trunk has no bones, a small amount of fat, and close to 150,000 separate muscles. 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, and is moved by precise coordination of the muscles. Running from the brain to the trunk is a special proboscis nerve for controlling its pinpoint movements
Before birth, the trunk and upper lip of the elephant fetus are not connected together. After coming into this world, 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
Elephant trunks have several uses. 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:
As an elephant trunk is a type of nose it helps them to breathe. If they smell anything foul they don’t have to hold their breath. They can turn their trunks elsewhere and breathe.
Using their trunks to breath 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, the trunk gives an elephant an incredibly powerful sense of smell. It can smell four times as sensitive as a bloodhound. It can smell of food and water from incredibly long distances – up to 19 kilometers by some accounts.
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 350 kilograms.
- Tear bark off a tree.
- Dig into the ground for drinking water.
- Break the strong branches of 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 rubbing
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. Minor elephants use their trunks while playing. They spray dust or grass at each other. In this way, they form bonds and have fun with their friends.
Elephants use their trunks to store water. They suck water using their trunk and spray the excess water over the body. It helps them stay cool in hot environments. An adult Asian elephant can store 8.5 liters of water in its trunk!
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 end 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 “elephant trunk”
What is the trunk of an elephant?
The elephant trunk is a combination of the nose and upper lip of its mouth. It is called 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?
An elephant has a trunk for various reasons. It is a specially adapted body part used for manifold purposes. An elephant trunk is used in eating, gripping, drinking, smelling, rubbing, and more
How does an elephant trunk work?
An elephant trunk 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?
No, elephant trunks don’t have bones. It has a little amount of fat but is primarily a muscular organ. There are close to 150,000 muscles in an elephant trunk!
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!
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