While we watch the Oregon Zoo’s world-renowned elephant experts care for pregnant Asian elephant Rose-Tu (birth expected in late 2012), ThisWildLife.com thought some cool information about elephants would give animal lovers new insight while we wait. As human beings that weigh between 7 and 300 pounds, imagining the life of a 7,000-pound elephant described as “playful, spirited, and highly intelligent” will take some doing. Nevertheless, let’s give it a try, starting with the front—which is the trunk.
Each fall, the Portland Zoo’s Asian elephants smash pumpkins in a public-pleasing ritual. Elephants crush the giant gourds with their feet. Once the fruit is open, trunks unfurl and each grabs a chunk of orange deliciousness. Not only does the trunk put food and water into an elephant’s mouth, but the trunk also houses two long nasal (trunkal?) passages that move air. The trunk manipulates objects, senses through touch and air-borne chemicals, creates sound, and disciplines members of the herd.
All About Trunks
Getting a perspective on this agile grabber with a long reach from a photograph is difficult. Here are the numbers: adults’ trunks vary from 6-12 feet in length and from more than 14 inches at it’s largest diameter, the trunk tapers to about 3 inches at the tip. Made mostly of muscle, elephants use their trunks to touch and investigate objects. The trunk’s well-developed muscles hold water or air inside and control the timing and force of the release. (Just ask an elephant keeper about this.)
In contrast to the power of the rest of the organ, the trunk tip is as sensitive and as agile as a finger in picking up small objects. At the zoo, you will see elephants use their trunk tips to gather dirt and then fling it onto their skin in a dry form of bathing. Elephants also use their trunks the way that submarines use periscopes, raising them over their heads. The raised trunk samples the air for chemicals that excite the sensory cells lining the nasal passages. Scent is a major source of information for elephants about what is going on in their environment.
Trunks also allow elephants to create a variety of sounds. The same muscles that allow elephants to control the drawing of air and water into the trunk (and its release) also allows them to create a variety of sounds. (Think trombone.) Elephants squeal in play, create a sound like a scream when angry, and trumpet warnings. Sometimes when elephants are annoyed, they thump their trunk on the ground or an object.
Adult elephants use their trunks to protect young calves or discipline teenage elephants. A mother uses her trunk to keep a curious calf from investigating something dangerous. Older females swat misbehaving younger females with their trunks.