The Incredible, Bendable, Twistable, Expandable Elephant Trunk
The Incredible, Bendable, Twistable, Expandable Elephant Trunk. As a breeze blows through the savannah, a snake-shaped tube stretches into the air and scans the horizon like a periscope. But it’s not seeing— it’s sniffing for odors like the scent of a watering hole or the musk of a dangerous predator. The trunk’s owner is a young African elephant.
At only 8 years old, she still has a lot to learn about her home. Fortunately, she’s not alone. Elephants are extremely social creatures, with females living in tight-knit herds led by a single matriarch. And every member of the group has one of the most versatile tools in the savannah to help them get by. Today her herd is looking for water. Or, more accurately, smelling for water.
What is the trunk of an elephant called?
Elephants have more genes devoted to smell than any other creature, making them the best sniffers in the animal kingdom. Even at our elephant’s young age, her trunk is already 1.5 meters long and contains five times as many olfactory receptors as a human nose, allowing her to smell standing water several kilometers away. And now, the matriarch uses her own keen sense of smell to plot the herd’s course. Their journey is long, so our elephant keeps her energy up by snacking on the occasional patch of thick grass. But this light lunch isn’t just about staying fed— she’s also looking for clues.
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Like many other mammals, vents in the roof of an elephant’s mouth lead directly to the vomeronasal organ. This structure can detect chemical signals left by other elephants. So as the herd forages, they’re also gathering information about what other herds have come this way. All the while, the group’s adults are on the lookout for signs of other animals, including potential threats. Fortunately, while lions might attack a young or sickly elephant, few are foolish enough to take on a healthy adult.
Do elephants have mucus in their trunks?
Weighing 3 tons and bearing powerful tusks nearly a meter long, our elephant’s mother is a force to be reckoned with. Her dexterous trunk doubles as a powerful, flexible arm. Containing no bones and an estimated 40,000 muscles, these agile appendages can bend, twist, contract, and expand. At 8 years old, our elephant’s trunk is already strong enough to move small fallen trees, while finger-like extensions allow for delicate maneuvers like wiping her eye. She can even grab a nearby branch, break it to just the right length, and wave off pesky insects.
Suddenly, the matriarch stops their Marchand sniffs the air. Using smell alone, elephants can recognize each member of their herd, and their exceptional memories can retain the smells of elephants outside their herd as well. It’s one of these old but familiar odors that’s caught the matriarch’s attention. She bellows into the air, sending out a sound wave that rings across the savannah. But it travels even further through the earth as infrasonic rumbles.
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What does an elephant’s trunk smell like?
Elephants up to 10 kilometers away can receive these rumbles with their feet. If the matriarch’s nose is right, her herd should expect a response. Smelling the secretions from her daughter’s temporal glands, our elephant’s mother can sense her daughter’s unease about this unfamiliar encounter. As the herd of unknown elephants approaches, trunks from both herds rise into the air, sounding trumpets of alarm. But upon recognition, apprehension quickly gives way to happy rumbles. Members from each herd recognize each other despite time apart, and many investigate each other’s mouths with their trunks to smell what their counterparts have been eating.
With the reunion now in full swing, both herds head toward their final destination: the long-awaited watering hole. Here, older elephants suck up to 8 liters of water into their trunks before spraying the contents on themselves to cool off. Meanwhile, our young elephant plays in the mud with her peers, digging into the muck and even using her trunk as a snorkel to breathe while submerged. The pair of matriarchs look contentedly on their herds, before turning their trunks to the horizon once more.
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FUN FACTS ABOUT ELEPHANT
- In a herd of wild African elephants, the animals sleep rough and for only a couple of hours a day, usually grabbing forty winks (over a total of about two hours) while leaning against a tree. Sometimes they only enjoy the benefits of recumbent sleep every few days.
- It can suck up to 10 gallons of water a minute and can hold up to two gallons of water at a time! (And for the record, the elephant doesn’t drink directly through the trunk, yet uses it to bring water to its mouth.)
- As an adult, an elephant’s trunk is capable of lifting more than 700 pounds, thanks to an array of some 40,000 muscles. (For reference, humans have just over 600 muscles in our entire bodies.)
- Elephants defecate between eight and 10 times every day, and there are six or seven boys (poop) in a pile. That breaks down to about one pile per elephant every two hours!
- Elephants do have fantastic memories. So yes, elephants have fabulous memories, and this is one of the things that makes them so special. An elephant’s brain can weigh up to 5 kilograms – larger than any other land animal. It helps store that amazing memory. Elephants never forget anything. The memory of elephants is legendary and for good reason. Of all land mammals, elephants possess the largest brains. They have the ability to recall distant watering holes, other elephants, and humans they have encountered — even after the passage of many years.1
- Elephants can sleep both standing up and lying down. However, researchers have discovered that elephants in captivity tend to sleep more lying down than elephants in the wild.
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