Elephant Trunks – Amazing and Surprising Tools

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A group of scientists at Georgia Tech University recently studied the ways that elephants use sucking power when eating. Along the way, the scientists learned a number of other surprising things elephants can do with their trunks.

Elephants’ trunks are incredible. They weigh over 200 pounds (91 kilograms), but there are no bones in an elephant’s trunk. That helps explain how they can bend and twist, and be used in so many different ways.

African Elephant drinking at the waterhole of Okaukuejo, Etosha, Namibia.

Elephants use their trunks to breathe, to smell, and to make sounds. Though trunks aren’t connected to elephants’ stomachs, they are used to grab around 400 pounds (180 kilograms) of food every day and bring it to the elephants’ mouths. Elephants also use their trunks to suck up water to squirt into their mouths or on their backs.

But elephant trunks are also strong enough to be used for fighting. They’re made of pure muscle, and can lift items as heavy as 770 pounds (350 kilograms). The scientists wanted to learn more about how elephants’ trunks handle small things that don’t weight much.

For African elephants, part of that answer lies in the two finger-like tips they have at the end of their trunks, which allow them to grab things. (Asian elephants only have one finger, but they use it in a similar way.)

African Elephant Trunk

The researchers studied African elephants at Zoo Atlanta. By watching how the elephants managed small bits of food, the researchers learned that the animals used suction (sucking power). That was news. Many people thought only certain kinds of fish used suction for eating.

The scientists gave the elephants small cubes of a vegetable called a rutabaga. If there were just a few cubes, the elephant would use its fingers to pick them up. But if there were 10 or more cubes, the elephant would “vacuum” the cubes up with its trunk and then put them in its mouth.

Elephant research area at Zoo Atlanta

The elephants could even use suction to lift up something as thin and fragile as a tortilla chip without breaking it. They did it the same way a person might lift a piece of paper with their mouth by sucking in.

That gentleness is surprising in a tool as powerful as an elephant’s trunk. Other tests showed just how strong an elephant’s suction can be.

Elephant picking up a tortilla chip with it's trunk.

The scientists tested how quickly an elephant can suck water into its trunk. They found that in just 1.5 seconds, an elephant can suck up nearly 1.5 gallons (5.5 liters) of water.

When the scientists calculated how quickly an elephant could suck in air, they found that the rate was faster than 335 miles per hour (540 kilometers per hour). That’s faster than many bullet trains. Elephants can breathe in about 30 times faster than humans breathe out when they sneeze.

Elephant trunk sucking up apple pieces in a water/chia seed mixture.

The liquid-sucking test also revealed that elephants’ trunks seemed to hold more liquid than they should be able to. The researchers used a special machine to learn what was happening. They discovered that when the elephant sucked in liquid, its nostrils expanded, allowing the trunk to hold up to 64% more.

Did You Know…?
The researchers were interested in studying the ways elephants use suction because they think those sorts of abilities might be useful for robots.

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