The majestic elephant is by far the largest known animal on land living. It also has the longest recorded gestation period of 22 months… the list about this marvel of creation is nearly endless.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this giant of the past is its trunk. With an estimated muscle count ranging between 40,000 and 150,000, an elephant has the most extraordinary nose in creation.
The trunk is a fusion of the nose and upper lip, elongated and specialised to become the elephant’s most important and versatile appendage. African elephants are equipped with two finger-like projections at the tip of their trunk which help the elephants to get a steady workout, grasping seeds, roots, fruit, flowers, leaves, branches, bark, grass, and even thorns to pacify an incurable appetite.
At once both gentle and strong, an elephant’s trunk is capable of killing a lion – or caressing a frightened elephant calf. It can pick leaves, pull bark off trees but at the same time, it is sensitive enough to pick up objects as small as a coin or even a blade of grass.
Most herbivores possess teeth adapted for cutting and tearing off plant materials. However, except for the very young or sick, elephants always use their trunks to tear up their food and then place it in their mouths. They will graze on grass or reach up into trees to grasp leaves, fruit, or entire branches. If the desired food item is too high up, the elephant will wrap its trunk around the tree or branch and shake its food loose or sometimes simply knock the tree down altogether.
The trunk is also used for drinking. Elephants suck water up into the trunk – up to 14 litres at a time – and then blow it into their mouths. Elephants also suck up water to spray on their bodies during bathing. On top of this watery coating, the animals will then spray dirt and mud, which dries and acts as a protective sunscreen. When the elephant is swimming, the trunk makes an excellent snorkel.
This extraordinary nose also plays a key role in many social interactions. Familiar elephants will greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake. They also use them while play-wrestling, caressing during courtship and mother-child interactions, and for dominance displays. A raised trunk can be a sign of a warning or threat, while a lowered trunk can be a sign of submission. Elephants can defend themselves very well by waving their trunks at unwanted intruders or by grasping and flinging them.
An elephant also relies on its trunk for its highly developed sense of smell. By raising the trunk up in the air and swivelling it from side to side, like a periscope, it can determine the location of friends, enemies, food sources and even a mate!