10 extraordinary facts about elephant trunks

Elephant trunks
CC BY 2.0 Ryan Poplin/flickr

Amazing secrets of the excellent elephant trunk revealed!

We may take the trunk of an elephant for granted, so accustomed are we to seeing these iconic animals with their long agile noses arching with a spray of water. But when you stop to consider this oddest of dangling appendages, one quickly remembers what a curious animal part it is. Imagine having, essentially, a supernaturally strong skin-covered slinky attached to your face … one that can caress, has fine motor skills, and is so sensitive it can feel distant thunder from vibrations in the ground.

Among the trunk’s many exceptional features, consider these wonders.

It is many body parts in one


The trunk is both an upper lip and a nose, with two nostrils running through the whole thing. At the trunk’s tip, African elephant have two fingers while Asian elephants have one. The dexterity of the fingers allows an elephant the ability to do things like deftly pick up a single blade of grass or hold a paintbrush.

It has mighty muscles

An elephant’s trunk has eight major muscles on either side and 150,000 muscle bundles in all. It is so strong that it can push down trees and lift a whopping 700,000 pounds.

Its got the moves

Like the human tongue, the trunk is a muscular hydrostat – a boneless muscular structure that allows for its excellent maneuverability.

It has reach

Imagine how awkward it would be for an elephant to squat down for its mouth to reach water, or how long its neck would have to be to reach leaves? The trunk takes care of all of this – and in fact can reach branches 20 feet high. Think of the selfies it could take, no selfie stick required.

It has a built-in snorkel

That great reach makes the elephant unique in another category as well – it is the only animals that can effectively snorkel on its own. By extending the trunk out of the water, elephants can cross bodies of water that would prove too deep for other less-equipped animals.

It possesses a phenomenal sense of smell

The upper nasal cavities have chemical and olfactory sensors in the form of millions of receptor cells. So sensitive is an elephant’s trunk that is more capable than a bloodhound's nose and is said to be able to smell water from several miles away.

It feels the vibes

Aside from smell, the trunk is sensitive to vibrations; from the ground it can sense the rumble of faraway herds and even far-off thunder.

It’s a dynamo of hydro engineering

The trunk may be most famous for its display of spray as it sucks up water to drink and splash. But just how effective of a water tool is it? It can suck up to 10 gallons of water a minute and can hold up to two gallons of water at a time! (And for the record, the elephant doesn't drink directly through the trunk, yet uses it so bring water to its mouth.)

It says a lot

Not only is the trunk used for breathing (and smelling and drinking and feeding) it is also used for social purposes like greetings and caresses. From National Geographic:

The relationship between a mother elephant and her offspring is a protective, reassuring, and comforting one. Mothers and other family members caress the young in many different ways, by wrapping a trunk over the calf’s back leg… Mothers also wrap their trunks around the calf’s belly, over its shoulder, and under its neck, often touching its mouth. A gentle rumbling sound often accompanies the caress gesture.

It's a comfort item

Joyce Poole has been studying elephants for nearly 4 decades – and is co-founder of Elephant Voices. She explains to National Geographic that when an elephant feels uneasy, or is ambivalent about what to do next, he or she may use the trunk in a “touch-face” gesture, a “self-directed touching of the face, mouth, ear, trunk, tusk, or temporal gland, apparently to reassure and self-soothe.” Apparently, elephants pet themselves with their trunks to makes themselves feel better.

In conclusion, a video of a baby elephant learning to use her trunk. Because, "baby elephant learning to use her trunk."

This updated article was originally published in 2016.

10 extraordinary facts about elephant trunks
Amazing secrets of the excellent elephant trunk revealed!

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