Amazing facts about an elephant’s trunk

By Luke Street

The elephant’s trunk is an appendage that has always intrigued people. It is an absolutely fascinating body part which is completely engrossing to watch when coming across these animals in the wild. The trunk is possibly the most adapted organ for its environment in the entire animal kingdom.

This incredible device is an extension of two facial features. The trunk could even be considered a fusion of the upper lip and the nose, coming together to create an ex-tension of the face that reaches all the way to the ground. Such a device is incredi-bly useful when a large amount of your food comes from ground level. Adversely, it can also be redirected upwards to reach fruits, seeds and foliage that is out of reach from almost every other animal in the African bushveld.

The trunk also has the ability to move sideways. Essentially, the trunk is just like an arm without any bones, and therefore there is no limitation in the direction it can take or the unbelievable twisting and turning it can make.

Scientists believe there are between forty and fifty thousand muscles in the elephant’s trunk. When applying some crude mathematics, that works out to be about sixty times the amount of muscles found in the entire human body! This results in an organ that is extremely strong, while at the same time incredibly delicate, sensitive and tactile.

However, something this complex takes time to master and it is believed that it can take a young elephant up to two years to come to a terms with its trunk’s abilities. Personally, I am not convinced that the learning ever stops, as I have often witnessed mature elephants struggling to get their trunk to do exactly what they want.

One particular sighting comes to mind: I was watching a large, older elephant bull trying with all his might to pick up a very large tuber (bulb) he had just dug up. The tuber was just too big and smooth for him to effectively wrap his trunk around and maintain a grip. Time and time again it fell to the ground until eventually he figured out that he could, with the aid of his trunk, roll the tuber up his large front leg towards his chest where he then found the leverage needed and managed to scoop it into his mouth. I have never seen an elephant quite so satisfied as when this bull managed to finally eat his nutrient-dense tuber!

As the trunk is an extension of the nose, elephants have a superior sense of smell. This seems obvious if you consider the size of the nose and the amount of olfactory hairs that is contains. Elephants are selective in the smells they concentrate on with water being an absolute priority. It is estimated that they can smell water from over 10 kilometres away and it is evident from the diggings that we find in the dry riverbeds that they can smell water from deep underneath the ground.

Once they have located water below the earth’s surface they will use their trunks, feet and tusks in order to dig a deep hole and gain access to this water. The trunk is then used as a massive siphoning device, just like a giant straw. This allows the elephant to suck up to ten litres of water in a single take, which it then brings to its mouth to drink.

The tactile abilities of this appendage are also phenomenal. If you look closely at the tip of the trunk you will notice that there are actually two finger like ends, one at the top and one at the bottom. This gives the elephant the same tactile prowess as any human’s thumb and index finger working together which enables elephants to feel for, and pick up, even the smallest objects such as twigs and minute berries with great accuracy and care. I always find it amazing to watch elephants quickly and efficiently pick up one marula fruit after the next and shovel them into their mouths during the summer months.

Elephants also use their trunks for very delicate touch amongst one another, such as when they greet each other. There is an incredible gentleness and understanding be-tween these animals, often related simply through a touch of the trunk. Alternatively, the same trunk can be used for very tough activities such as breaking branches or push-ing over trees. The trunk is also vital to the process of throwing mud and sand on-to their immense bodies. They do this in order to protect themselves from sunburn and keep themselves cool during the hot summer days.

Some of the things I have seen elephants in the Timbavati doing with their trunks astounds me and what’s more, there seems to be almost no end to the many uses of this large nose. All elephants are different and they all seem to have various ways of using this incredible organ from one individual animal to the next. So next time you are on safari at Tanda Tula, remember to pay close attention to the elephant’s trunk and all the fascinating things they can do with them!

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