Yes, Baby Elephants Do Suck Their Trunks

But we wanted to know why. So we did a little digging and here's what we found out.

baby elephant sits alone in grass and plays with trunk

Manoj Shah / Getty Images

Images of baby elephants always create a buzz on the Internet but pictures of them seemingly sucking their trunk always captivate people. The latter raises the question of whether baby elephants actually suck their trunks—is that what's really going on? So we decided to do a little research.

Turns out, the adorable answer is the correct answer. Baby elephants do, in fact, suck their trucks just like baby humans suck their thumbs. And they do it for the same reason: comfort. Just like human newborns, elephant calves are born with a strong sucking reflex. This helps them instinctively know what to do when they are near their mother's breast.

Sucking = Food

Sucking = Mom

Therefore, sucking equals comfort. When a baby elephant is not nursing, it might suck its trunk just like a human baby might suck a pacifier.

Aside from the comfort it provides, trunk sucking helps an elephant calf learn how to use and control this lengthy appendage. With more than 50,000 individual muscles in the trunk, you can imagine how complicated it is to get it to do what you want it to do at any given time. Sucking on the trunk helps a young elephant learn how to control and manipulate the muscles in the trunk so that it can fine-tune its use.

Elephants also suck their trunks as a means of advanced "smelling." They can taste the pheromones of other elephants by touching their trunks to urine or feces and then popping the trunk in their mouths to get a closer whiff.

While trunk sucking is primarily a mannerism found in young elephants, older elephants—even mature bulls—have been seen sucking their trunks when they are nervous or upset.

Want to see a baby elephant sucking its trunk? Of course, you do. Here's a photo that made the rounds on the Internet and here's a video of a baby elephant learning how to suck its trunk.

Interestingly enough, baby elephants reportedly can't control their trunks. According to a blog from a ranger at South Africa's Tintswalo Safari Lodge:

"At first, baby elephants don’t really know what to do with their trunks. It’s amusing to watch as the calves swing them to and fro and sometimes even step on them. They will stick their trunk in their mouth just as a human baby might suck its thumb. With more than 50,000 individual muscle units in the trunk, it’s a complex skill to learn.
By about 6 to 8 months, calves begin learning to use their trunks to eat and drink. By the time they are a year old, they can control their trunks pretty well and, like adult elephants, use their trunks for grasping, eating, drinking, bathing."