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Secrets of the trunk: an elephant-astic tool

This blog was written by Meline Klopfenstein, a Bushwise Professional Field Guide student. Each student takes a turn as camp manager, and writing a blog is part of the experience.


4 min read 

One of the cutest events I have ever seen was an elephant calf trying to control its trunk. Can you imagine having to control up to 40,000 muscles at a time? Can you imagine being able to push a whole tree down with the trunk, but also, pick up a single shoot of grass? It is incredible!



What is it ?

The trunk is the fusion of the upper lip and the nose of the elephant. It weighs up to 140 kg and measures between 1.5 to 2 m! It is one of the only appendages that is moveable without any bone structure. The arrangement and small size of the muscles, enable an acute control for fine movement, and an undeniable strength. The tip of the trunk is extremely sensitive as it contains a dense network of sensory receptors.


The vital role of the trunk

The trunk is a vital tool for the elephants. From shaking a marula tree to get the fruits, to gently caressing a calf, to simply breathing, elephants display immense dexterity and strength. It is used for feeding, drinking, communicating, and so much more.


Elephants use their trunks to get food – be it twigs, fruits or grass – and bring it to their mouths. An adult elephant’s trunk can also carry up to 12 litres of water to the mouth. Sometimes we also see them putting their trunks in their mouths and then drinking. They have a pharyngeal pouch at the back of the mouth that serves to store water. It can hold about 4.5 litres of water, but without a trunk, it would not be possible for the elephant to use this water!


The trunk is also vital for elephants to dust, mud, and water-bath. These activities are carried out as social interaction and bonding experiences, but are also important for many other reasons. It enables better thermoregulation by creating a protective layer over the skin and directly cooling down the elephant. It also maintains the skin in good health by moisturising it. Mud also plays insect repellent and antiseptic roles, helping with the healing of wounds.



Communication using the trunk

Elephants also use their trunks to communicate in different ways. To start with, the long trunk enables the elephant to have an acute sense of smell. The genome of the elephant is composed of up to 2,000 functional olfactory receptor genes! To make a comparison, domestic dogs have about 800 and humans have 400 functional olfactory receptor genes. Smell is central to their survival. It allows them to find food, water and navigate their environment safely, as they are able to smell danger from a distance. Smell is also central in their communication with other elephants. 


The trunk of an elephant is one of the most sensitive parts of its body. It is therefore often used for reassurance or bonding. A mother will sometimes gently caress the calf to make sure it is awake, following the group or to guide it. Upon greeting one another, or as they face danger, elephants will sometimes reach their trunk to the mouth of the other individual. Calves have also been observed sucking their own trunk. This was often in a situation where the calf showed signs of uncertainty or discomfort. It is thought to serve a reassurance purpose, just as a human child would suck his/her thumb when needing reassurance.


Sounds elephants emit are varied. The larynx is situated in the throat of the elephant and is responsible for emitting most of the sounds: rumbling, trumpeting, infrasound. The trunk, however, can be used to modify the tones of the trumpeting, thus expanding the range of sounds possible. The trunk itself can also emit a kind of snorting sound, that shows high arousal.



It is also possible to read the state of mind of the elephant by the movement and position of its trunk. For example, a male in musth will display many recognisable behaviours such as curling and uncurling, or dragging the trunk on the ground. Dragging and bouncing the trunk can also be observed when threatening. I have seen young elephants playing and chasing birds, throwing their trunks forward to frighten them.


Joyce Pool (Co-Founder and Co-Director of ElephantVoices) also believes that when elephants point their trunk straight to a direction or an object, it is to attract and direct the attention of other members of the group to this object, and not only for smelling. If an individual smells something and does not want to attract the attention of other members of the group, only the tip of the trunk will subtly move in the direction of the smell.


With such a complex appendage, how do calves learn to use it?

They are born with a trunk that is fully functional but they do not have the control over it. Controlling it is a colossal task and it takes up to a year for the calf to be fully comfortable. The calf will learn by observing the other members of the group and imitating. It is through a lot of trial and error that the calf gains control over its trunk.


Want to learn more about the wonders of wildlife? Explore Bushwise courses and apply now to start your adventure in field guiding!


Sources used:

Longren, L. L., Eigen, L., Shubitidze, A., Lieschnegg, O., Baum, D., Nyakatura, J. A., Hildebrandt, T., & Brecht, M. (2023). Dense reconstruction of elephant trunk musculature. Current Biology, 33(21), 4713-4720.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2023.09.007

Kirstein, K. A., & Berlin, H.-U. zu. (2023). Giants with microscopic muscles: New findings reveal the structure of the dexterous elephant trunk. Phys.orghttps://phys.org/news/2023-09-giants-microscopic-muscles-reveal-dexterous.html

Poole, JH., (n.d.). Ethogram table. Retrieved 27 April 2024, from https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-ethogram/ethogram-table/overview.html


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