As many of you know, I love elephants and I'm very lucky in that working in South East Asia for a large proportion of the year means I actually get to see rescued former-tourist ellies from my front porch.
One of its most distinguising features is an elephant's nose, but what exactly does it use it for? Well, an elephant's trunk, or it's proboscis is of vital importance to an elephant. Early biologists referred to the elephant's trunk as it's 'hand', but it is infact a tool evolved from a merging of the nose and upper lip.
Breathing & Drinking
The primary use of an elephant's trunk is for breathing and drinking - without it's trunk the elephant would be able to do neither effectively. Where drinking is concerned, the elephant is able to submerge the tip of it's trunk in water, and suck up vast amounts of liquid into it's nasal cavity. From there, the elephant squirts the water back out through the trunk into it's waiting mouth to quench it's thirst. An adult Asian elephant can store 8.5 litres of water in it's trunk at one time, and over a period of 5 minutes, can drink up to 210 litres of liquid - without it's invaluable trunk, the elephant would struggle to drink at all, replying instead on small amounts of water in it's food content.The trunk can be effectively used as a snorkel for breathing underwater, and as the majority of elephants love wallowing in pools, this is an extremely handy aspect to the trunk, and it is believed that this was perhaps the original function of the trunk prior to further evolution.
As well as for breathing and drinking, an elephant's trunk has an extremely well developed sense of smell. From being able to detect the approach of predators through their scent, or being able to avoid bush fires due to smelling smoke well in advance, the trunk's skill in detecting scents and aromas make it an incredibly useful tool for an elephant.
When eating, an elephant will use it's trunk as a hand-like tool, and with over 150,000 muscles in the trunk, which work effectively in pairs, the proboscis is highly flexible; an elephant can wrap it's trunk gently around it's food - a piece of fruit or banana plant for example - an accurately pick it up and guide it straight into it's mouth using only the trunk. The tactile nature of the trunk, and it's incredibly sensitive tip which is often referred to as a lip, means that the trunk is not only capable of carrying heavy food loads, and lifting obstacles in it's path, but also of gently retrieving food or using it to comfort it's family members.
The elephant uses it's trunk in a variety of emotional ways, and it can be used to demonstrate a range of feelings and emotions, whether directed at troop members, such as young elephant calves, or at threats. The trunk is used both in gentle caresses, particularly where offspring are where offspring are concerned, and in admonitory slaps when calves are misbehaving. By raising a trunk in a family group, an elephant can be signalling for the attention of the other troop members.