The Nose Knows: Amazing Elephant Trunks

Written by Thomson Safaris

Elephant trunks are much more than oversized snouts! These amazing appendages are integral to almost every part of an elephant’s life.

That’s because elephant trunks can have over 40,000 individual muscles!

If that sounds like a lot, it is: the human body has just 639 muscles. Total.

These muscles work together as a muscular hydrostat, meaning a muscle or muscle group that works independently, without bone support (the human tongue is a great example of a muscular hydrostat).

This means trunks have incredible strength, flexibility, and dexterity (all properties of muscular hydrostats), allowing elephants to use them for actions as delicate as picking up a single straw or as heavy-hitting as uprooting a small tree!

Elephants in Tanzania

Work like hands

Two opposable “fingers” at the end of the African elephant’s trunk allow it to manipulate even small or tricky objects deftly. Think how many actions you can perform with just a thumb and an index finger; an elephant is just as dexterous with the tips of its trunk!

elephant trunkPhoto: Thomson Safaris guest, Helen Parrish

Are incredibly sensitive sniffers

Scientists have determined that an elephant’s sense of smell is four times better than a bloodhound’s. That’s because elephants have literally millions of scent receptors; they reportedly work so well that elephants can smell water at distances of several miles (even if it’s buried underground)!

Elephants-trunk-smellPhoto: Thomson Safaris staffer, Bryan Rotundo

Can serve as a snorkel…or a water pump

The cartoons got it right; elephants are the only animals with an agile enough nose to serve as their own snorkeling gear.

They can also use their trunks to suck up water…but not to drink it. Just like us, elephants are meant to breathe—not drink—through their noses. Instead, they pour the water from their trunks into their mouths.

elephant trunk snorkelPhoto: Thomson Safaris guest, Alan Story

The fables were right: they start short, then stretch!

When an elephant is born, its trunk is relatively short…but it rapidly stretches out. Of course learning to use such a complex organ takes a little time, which is why baby elephants are much clumsier with theirs, and often even trip over them!

baby elephant learns to use its trunk
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Sara Meyers