The Trunk
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Did you know?

  • In human terms the trunk represents the nose and upper lip with the two nostrils running through its full length
  • Elephants use their trunks to rub an itchy eye or scratch its ear. Trunks are also used to threaten, and to throw objects
  • An elephant drinks by filling its trunk with water and then pouring the water into its mouth
  • Elephants can use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming in water
  • The trunk is an exploratory organ in which much of what the elephant experiences comes from the trunk.

Baby Orphan Copyright 2001 The David Sheldrick Wildlife TrustProbably one of the most interesting morphological features of the elephant is its trunk. The trunk is an extremely flexible muscular organ which can be used with the finest touch. It is an important part of an elephant's life by being used as an exploratory organ, for feeding, for drinking and for friendly wrestling matches.

At the first hint of danger, and elephant will raise its trunk to smell any reason for the threat. It is also used for a whole range of smelling tasks as one of the elephant's primary sensory inputs (along with hearing). Whether it is to smell to see if a female is sexually receptive, or to explore the food in another elephant's mouth, the trunk plays a vital part in its life. In fact, it is almost impossible for an elephant to survive if its trunk becomes damaged.

dustbathAlthough most mammals use the nose solely for air intake, elephants use its trunk for water storage, and for sucking up mud and dust to clean or cool off. A typical elephant on average can hold about 4 litres of water. The skin covering the front side is annulated with deep crevasses and has a sparse covering of fine sensory hairs.

An African elephant has two fingers on the tip of its trunk that is uses to grab objects with. The Asian elephant only has one finger and typically only uses the trunk to scoop objects up with.

African Elephant With Two FingersAn elephant calf can lift about 4.5% of its own weight with its trunk. Or, in the case of an elephant bull it ranges around 270kg.

Please keep in mind that all elephants are individuals, and each has differing capacities from a strength perspective.

Baron Cuvier, a great French naturalist, estimated that the trunk contained 40,000 muscles!! Amazingly, the entire human body only has 639 muscles. However, it is important to know that the elephants trunk actually only has 6 major muscle groups (not commonly known), which are subdivided into over 100,000 muscle units. So, Curvier's original estimate, although off by a bit, was correct when taking into account the groups of different muscles. These muscles are divided into two distinct sets of pairs. (Elephants by Clive Spinage P. 55)

elephantreaching5 elephantreaching5a
Two vs. One Finger
Asian vs. African Grabbing

Two Baby Orphans  Copyright 2001 The David Sheldrick Wildlife TrustA trunk is not typically for fighting apart from being involved in threatening gestures. Also, as noted above and elephant will use its trunk when play fighting with another friend. This typically involves pretty involved wrestling matches that can quite quite interesting.

Generally speaking, if an elephant is charging with its trunk stretched outwards then it is bluffing. But, if its trunk is tucked down then it means business.

As well, an elephant tests different smells with its trunk by placing the tip inside its mouth after touching an object. This transfers the smell to a small opening in the palate which leads to the Jacobson's organ (an accessory organ of smell found in all vertebrates)

The trunk is an elephant's most sensitive body part, and this is why when in captivity a person focuses on their trunk when beating them; when elephants are being punished or trained they are hit, poked and potentially beaten on the trunk as it causes the most pain to the individual.


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