How the elephant masters its trunk 1: the basics

[This is my 200th post. I wonder when I will run out of natural wonders to share?]

Learning to use your trunk is tricky. Young elephants, like young children have to practice their fine motor skills.

Everybody knows that a trunk is an elongated flexible nose (it is actually the nose fused with the upper lip), and indeed if you look at it from underneath, the anatomy is quite clear, including the two nostrils, which go all the way up! And it can still be used to sniff out two sweaty tourists in their jeep.


To nurse, you have to get it out of the way, so your mouth can reach the teat:


But the trunk comes into its own when you need to reach the water at the bottom of a hole that your mother has dug deep in a dry sand river (an underground river):


You kneel down, suck up the water, then squirt it out of your trunk into your mouth. You can no more drink it through your trunk than we humans can sniff water up our noses and down our throats. Occasionally you get sand by mistake, but that’s fine if all you want to do is cool down:


The African (but not the Asian) elephant’s trunk has two flexible “fingers”, that can grasp things tightly:


As you get older, you become so dexterous that you can pick tiny leaves and flowers off almost bare spiny bushes:




Next time: It’s not just for eating and drinking.

P.S. For the technically minded amongst you, the elephant’s trunk, like our tongues and like octopus arms, is a muscular-hydrostat. (Kier and Smith 1985). It has no bones to keep it stiff. It is a cylinder of fixed volume, so to make it longer, you must make it thinner. It has longitudinal muscles, and transverse muscles, and bending it requires the use of both. So a baby elephant learning to use its trunk to pick leaves is a bit like a baby human learning to use its tongue to make speech sounds. 




4 thoughts on “How the elephant masters its trunk 1: the basics”

  1. Moira: congratulations on your 200th blog! Because you ‘wonder,’ I don’t think you’ll ever run out of natural wonders to share 😁. Great photos & explanations about the Elephant baby’s trunk. Interesting, that I was looking through a poem book, just a few minutes ago. My son & I take turns reading a poem every other day. There was a poem by Rudyard Kipling…I asked him if he knew which books he knew Kipling wrote? I mentioned Rikki Tikki Tavi, the Just So stories (etc). My favorite was ‘How the Elephant Got His Trunk.’


  2. I did not know that the African Elephant had two finger like protrusions at the end of its trunk, and the Asian one does not.


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