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How does an elephant’s trunk work?

23 Jan 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

The elephant’s trunk must be one of the most amazing things in Africa, if not the entire animal kingdom, but how does this incredible appendage work?

Created from a fusion of the animal’s top lip and its nose, the elephant’s trunk is a multi-functional tool integral to this distinguished mammals’ survival. It is used to smell, breathe, drink, eat, communicate, and as a weapon when required.

Remarkably, the skeletal remains of an elephant would show no indication of the trunk as there are no bones to indicate it even existed.

Incredible engineering

The trunk is composed of 140kgs of flesh, fat, nerves, connective tissue, and over 40 000 muscles grouped around the nasal passages. These taper down to two fingers in the case of African elephants and one finger for Asian elephants.

Functionally, the muscles are what give the trunk its versatility. The four large external muscles running along the top, side and bottom of the trunk control the main movements of the trunk i.e. up, down and sideways.

The smaller internal muscles are responsible for finer movements and are based on a network of hundreds of thousands of fascicles. The fascicles are arrangements running all along the trunk like bicycle spokes and give the trunk its extraordinary flexibility. In human terms, the elephant’s trunk is most like the tongue in that regard.

What does the elephant use its trunk for?

Just like the human tongue, the elephant is able to taste the air thanks to millions of receptor cells in their upper nasal cavity. They can smell just as well as any bloodhound and are able to detect water from 19km away.

Once found, the elephant can draw up to 8 litres of that water into their nasal passages at a time. This is then sprayed into the mouth. Elephants cannot drink through their noses and would choke if they tried. Water and mud is sprayed over the elephant’s body to cool it down on a hot day and discourage external parasites like ticks.

If a river crossing is in order, the trunk comes to the rescue once again. Held high above the surface of the water, the trunk is used like a snorkel so the elephant can breathe even when its entire body is submerged.

Finger food

Food time is a breeze when you have two highly tactile fingers to pick leaves from the highest branches, snap off twigs or pull up grass, and self-defence is no problem either with a long muscular club at your disposal. An elephant’s trunk can lift hundreds of kilograms with ease and swing with considerable force if need be.


Watch a while the next time you come across some elephants on safari to see the ways in which they use this amazing appendage in almost every aspect of their lives.