One of the first things most people notice when looking at an elephant is its long trunk and how they use it. Elephants are very clever in using their trunk, which is made up of their upper lip and nose.
Trunks are elephants’ noses and can detect scents up to 20km away. Elephants use their trunk to feed by grabbing and rotating trees, grasses, branches, and twigs into their mouth. They use their trunks to suck up water that they shoot into their mouth to drink or spray their bodies to keep cool. Trunks are used in communication, such as trumpeting or touching other elephants.
There are many ways elephants use trunks, so let’s look at some of these.
What is a trunk?
A trunk is made up of the upper lip and the nose. It is made of individual muscle fascia and doesn’t contain any bones. The muscle fascia can be seen in the bands of radial, parallel muscles along the length of the trunk. The spiral bands of muscle loop around the trunk from top to bottom. Although no one knows for sure, it is thought that elephants may have up to 50,000 muscles in their trunks.
The elephant cant reach the ground with its mouth due to its short neck. Due to their heavy cranial and jaw structures, a longer neck was impossible throughout their evolution. This led to the trunk, allowing them to reach the ground.
An elephant’s trunk is very sensitive, especially near the tip where the nostrils are. They have long sensory hairs, which make the trunk sensitive.
They have two nostrils which are separated up the trunk. They can use these to pick up individual berries from bushes or shrubs. The inside of the trunk can often be seen to dribble as it is moist to keep out dust.
The trunk attaches to the skull with a vast nasal opening allowing the elephants to pick up smells from a distance.
Males have a longer trunk than females and often rest on the floor when standing. Due to the trunk’s weight, large males will often rest it on their tusks. The trunk’s width between the tusks is also more prominent in males than females.
Elephants use their trunks to communicate, using auditory and tactile communication. Elephants have approximately 30 distinct calls to coordinate group movements and warn others of danger. They also use their calls to contact each other when they are not together.
The calls are used to determine which elephants are calling, with some elephants able to distinguish between 100 different elephants by the sound they make. Elephants can hear others up to 4km away.
The most distinct way that elephants communicate through their trunks is trumpeting. They produce this sound by forcing air through the trunk. Trumpeting is used for a variety of reasons, including warnings or alarms and when playing or meeting up with other elephants.
Elephants also use their trunks to touch each other. Trunks are used to greet each other, seen by how they entwine their trunks together. An elephant that places the tip of its trunk into another’s mouth shows subordination and can stop fights when play fighting.
Calves are disciplined by using the adult’s trunk to slap, shove, or pull them around. Baby elephants can be seen holding other elephants’ tails with their trunk and will ask their mother to suckle by touching an adult’s back, legs, or nipples.
Although many animals such as hippos, crocodiles, and alligators have their nostrils on top of their heads, only the elephant has a ready-made snorkel. Elephants can swim well, using their trunk while swimming to breathe.
Elephants keep their trunks above the water when crossing deep rivers, travelling almost anywhere.
Finding food and water
Elephants can pull bark off trees by twisting and wrapping it around their tusks. Elephants use the muscles in the trunk to bend foodstuff side to side. Elephants usually twist their trunk in one direction, and a greenish line can be seen on one side of their trunk. This is caused by twisting grass or foliage into their mouth. The skin on this side of the trunk can become very calloused due to the constant use.
Although not the tallest animal, elephants can reach higher than giraffes. When an elephant stands on its hind legs, a fully grown adult male can reach up to 20 feet.
Trunks help them drink, but they cannot drink through their trunks. Elephants will suck water up into their trunk before squirting it into their mouth and swallowing it. They can hold up to 12 litres of water in their trunks.
This water is also used to cool elephants down when hot, and they can often be seen spraying themselves. When an elephant first goes to a watering hole, they use its trunk to get rid of the dirty water on top by sucking it up and spraying it out. Due to their excellent sense of smell, elephants can test the water in this way to see if it is okay to drink.
Calves do not use their trunks to feed but through their mouth, moving their trunks to one side or above their head.
Elephants can spray up to 18 litres of water from their trunks to keep themselves cool, essential for such a large animal in hot temperatures. Elephants also have a pouch in their pharynx that they can use when they suffer from heat stress. They can regurgitate water into the pouch before using their trunk to spray their heads to cool them down.
Elephants will use their trunks after a swim to protect themselves from the sun’s rays. Elephants can be seen kicking around sand, loosening it with their feet before lifting it with their trunks and spraying their bodies.
Due to their long trunks and huge nasal cavity, elephants have an excellent sense of smell. Elephants can often be seen lifting their trunks in the air, which allows them to smell better. An elephant can smell a water source up to 19km away. Studies have shown that elephants have a better smell than bloodhounds and five times better than humans.
Smell plays an extremely important part in the social interactions of a herd and in detecting threats.
Elephants will sample scents with their trunks before putting them into their mouths to use the vomeronasal openings. This is often done by males when they have samples of the urine of females to find out information about them. If a female is in oestrus, the hormones will show that they are ready to mate. A bull will sample the urine and exhale air onto the vomeronasal ducts. This stimulates the ducts, which tell the bull if the female is ready to mate.
Scent is a handy communication tool for elephants. If you want to find out what other ways elephants communicate, I have written an article here.