It’s a fascinating thing, a lot of the time even mesmerizing. The elephant’s trunk is an appendage that has intrigued people for an age. An organ I think could be the most adapted towards its environment in the entire animal kingdom.
This incredible device is an extension of two facial features, one could even consider it as a fusion. The upper lip and the nose come together beautifully to create an extension of the face that reaches all the way to the ground. Something that is very useful when a lot of your food comes from ground level. Adversely it can easily be redirected upwards to reach fruits, seeds and foliage that is out of reach to just about everything else in the African wilderness. Let’s not forget the sideways movement either. Essentially what this is, is an arm but unlike our arms or any other animal’s arms, it has no bones and thus no limitation in the direction it can take or the twisting and turning it can achieve.
Scientists believe there to be between 40 000 and 50 000 muscles within the elephant’s trunk. When applying some crude mathematics, that’s about 60 times the amount of muscles found in the entire human body! The end result of this is an organ that is incredibly strong while at the same time delicately tactile. However, something this complex takes time to master and the idea is that it takes a young elephant in the region of two years to get a mild grip of what its trunk can achieve. Though I don’t think the learning ever stops as I have often witnessed elephants of a mature age struggling to get their trunk to do exactly what they want. One particular sighting comes to mind of the time I spent watching a large and mature elephant bull trying with all his might to pick up a very large tuber (bulb) he had just dug up. The tuber was just too big and smooth for him to effectively wrap his trunk around and maintain a grip. Time and time again it fell to the ground until eventually he figured out that he could, with the aid of his trunk, roll the tuber up his mighty leg towards his chest where he then found the leverage needed and managed to scoop it into his mouth – I have never seen an elephant so satisfied and I will never forgot the sound of that tuber being crunched.
Of course, being an extension of the nose equates to a superior sense of smell, especially when you consider the size of this nose and the amount of olfactory hairs that is contains. Elephants are selective in the smells they concentrate on though and water is something they very much know how to smell. It is estimated that they can smell water from over 10 kilometres away and it is evidently proven, by the diggings we find, that they can smell water bodies underground. Once they have located some underground water they once again employ the use of their trunks in aid of their feet and tusks in digging the hole from which they can access this water. The work of the trunk in this process is not over though. Changing from a digging apparatus the trunk now becomes a massive siphoning device, a huge straw, if you will. Guzzling up to 10 litres of water in a single take, from which it can then be brought up to the mouth for drinking.
The tactile abilities of this appendage seem to have no end and when you look closely at the tip of the trunk you will notice that there is actually two finger like tips, one at the top and one at the bottom. This of course gives the elephant the same tactile prowess as any human’s thumb and index finger working together. This enables elephants to feel for, with great accuracy and pick up with great care even the smallest of objects such as twigs and minute berries. There are few things more satisfying than seeing an elephant quickly and efficiently picking up marula fruit after marula fruit as they shovel them into their mouths. Elephants can use their trunks for very delicate touches, such as those witnessed when they greet and touch each other, or they can use it for very rough things like breaking the branches of trees. The trunk is also obligatory in the process of throwing mud and sand onto their immense bodies, something which is very much needed for protection from heat and sun burn and something that is very entertaining to see in action.
Some of the things I have seen elephants achieve with their trunks astound me and the incredible thing is that there seems to be no shortage of uses. All elephants are different and they all seem to have different ways of using this fascinating organ. It is a true joy to witness elephants in their natural habitat at Tanda Tula Safari Camp on a daily basis and I implore you to take note of their trunk and become mesmerised next time you are out there on safari with us in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.