Tuesday, December 20, 2016

#ElephantTuesdays: the elephant´s trunk 🐘

The respiratory system of the elephants has several unique features. However, despite all the studies about elephants that have been made so far, there are very few scientific publications regarding their respiratory system; for example, the African elephants are known to have more flexible trunks than the Asians, and the reason remains still unclear. 

The trunk is one of those unique structures; it consists of the nose and the upper lip, more or less 80.000 muscles, 2 separated nostrils (or passages) and no bones. 

Their trunks are so important, that an elephant couldn´t survive with an amputated or hardly damaged trunk. They are used not only for breathing, but they also have several other functions like:

Soak organ: unlike many people might think, elephants don´t drink with their trunks, but use them to soak up water and then blow it into their mouths (up to 10 liters at once!).

“Body-care” organ: they use it to clean their eyes and ears, or to blow sand and mud over their bodies to clean themselves or to cool down, as a sun protection or as an insect repellent. 

Tactile function: playing, fighting, laying it on other´s back as a dominance signal, or touching mom:

Original video: ACP000bfq1

Original video: ACP000bfo0

Prehensile organ: The African elephant has two opposite prehensile finger-like appendages (“fingers”) at the tip of its trunk which are used to grab and/or manipulate objects and smaller items. The Asian elephant has only one finger at the end of its trunk:

Communication, producing sounds (trumpets, etc.), and also by using a large range of trunk displays to communicate, for example when encouraging to play (see this beautiful video :-) ). 

As a “weapon”: rolling it to push a potential danger (for example, other elephant or a safari car), they use it to throw objects against it, etc. When a chained Asian "working" male elephant is in musth, he would aggressively throw stones, sand, his own dung and food away as an expression of the frustration that arises from the lack of movement and the situation itself (high testosterone levels). 

To threaten: by swinging it in the direction of an adversary, ears wide open and running towards the potential danger. typically while blowing forcefully out through it.

Olfactory function:
Original video: ACP0002p30

Elephants are very curious animals, and they use their trunks to satisfy their curiosity by touching the object in particular with their trunk and then placing the trunk in their mouth. Like many other animals such as mice, rats, cattle, dogs, cats, goats and pigs, elephants have a Jacobson´s organ (vomeronasal organ) in the roof of their mouth. They transfer chemo sensory stimuli by touching this organ with the trunk finger.  

Curiosity: the elephant trunk is amazingly flexible and extremely strong at the same time: it can pick up a grain of rice and also lift a tree trunk. 


Murray E. Fowler, Susan K. Mikota (2006): Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants
Simon, Verne A. (2010). Adaptations in the Animal Kingdom
Pflumm Walter (1996): Biologie der Säugetiere

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