Jabulani curling his trunk
Size, physique and gentle character aside, what would an elephant be without its most distinctive feature? In this blog post, we take a closer look at the very curious appendage that is an elephant’s trunk.
The trunk is an elongated muscle which has a multitude of functions. A fusion of the nose and upper lip, it is both dexterous and powerful in equal measure. This incredible organ can gently pluck the smallest flower, pick up a coin or a blade of grass; yet is strong enough to rip branches off of trees, lift huge logs and even elephant calves.
The elephant trunk has about 40 000 muscles
The elephant trunk can be likened to a human tongue. Both are muscular hydrostats, which means that they are composed almost exclusively of muscle tissue that utilises water pressure to move, with muscles providing volume constancy and reversible torsional force. But what distinguishes the trunk is that it is made up of 8 major muscles on each side and contains up to 150,000 separate muscle fascicles, which give it its flexibility.
The elephant trunk is flexible
This highly dynamic organ is able to move in a variety of directions with immense strength and precision. It performs multiple tasks, including breathing, smelling, touching, grasping, vocalising (trumpeting), reaching high branches or rummaging low down on the forest floor. The trunk’s ability to make powerful twisting and coiling movements allows it to collect food, wrestle and lift a wopping 317 514,659 kg (700,000 pounds).
When bathing, an elephant sucks in water through its trunk to spray on its body. It will then spray dirt and mud on its wet coat, which will dry and act as ‘sunscreen’.
Elephants have a keen sense of smell. Photo by Black Bean Productions
Although a damaged trunk is detrimental to an elephant, some have been able to survive with shortened ones. Elephants are very careful to protect their trunks, and tuck them into their chins when sleeping. They also adopt this same position when threatened, and can use their trunks as a weapon for self-defense. The elephants’ sense of smell is said to surpass that of a bloodhound, and they can smell water from miles away. When underwater, they use the trunk as a snorkel.
Individuals may show lateral preference when grasping with their trunks – with some twisting more to the left, and others to the right – much like being left or right-handed in humans.
Finger-like extensions at the tip of the trunk
There are various ways to tell an African elephant and an Asian elephant apart, the trunk being one of them. The African elephant has two finger-like extensions at the tip of the trunk that allow it to grasp and bring food to its mouth. The Asian elephant has only one, and relies more on wrapping around a food item and squeezing it into its mouth.
What a fascinating organ, on a fascinating creature. Do you not agree?
Reaching out higher