For me elephants are some of the most magnificent and graceful creatures of the African bush. Their sheer size and unique adaptations are sure to draw your attention, their trunk in particular.
An elephant’s trunk is essentially a fusion of the nose and upper lip and its incredible versatility makes it possibly the most useful body part in the whole animal kingdom.

Did you know:

  1. Elephants have over 50 000 muscles in their trunk.

Despite no one knowing for sure exactly how many muscles are in the trunk, the bottom line is that it’s a big number. Most estimates put it at between 40 000 and 100 000! Elephants trunks are one of the most complex organs in the whole animal kingdom. The number of muscles they contain is simply staggering. To put it into context, the human body contains only 639 muscles in total, and all muscles are supported by bones and tendons throughout to allow them to function properly, yet there is not a single bone in the entire trunk of an elephant. The trunk is therefore most comparable to a humans tongue as they both work in very similar ways.
Elephants trunks are incredibly dynamic and able to not only move in a variety of directions but also able to do so with immense strength and precision. What I find so remarkable is how the trunk is able to manouever in so many directions without any skeletal support. It is able to do this by means of tightly packed muscle fibres that keep its volume constant through a variety of movements. Longitudinal, cross-sectional and lateral muscle arrangements allow the trunk to flex in literally any direction possible.


2. Their trunk can hold roughly 10 litres of water.

The volume of water an elephant can suck up into its trunk is obviously dependent on the size and age of the elephant (their trunk grows as do they) but a fully grown elephant trunk (which can itself weigh well upwards of 100kg!) is able to hold between 8 and 10 of water at a time! Contrary to popular belief, elephants do not drink with their trunks; they suck water up into them and then spray it into their mouths. They also use the water to spray over themselves to cool off, and being able to spray up to 10 litres at a time can only be beneficial!
Elephant calves cannot use their trunks at first and have to learn how to control them. I have watched elephant calves bending right down to put their mouths into the water to try and drink, as they simply lack the trunk control to be able to suck water up.

An elephant herd lines up to drink from the Sand River. Photograph by James Tyrrell

3. Elephants communicate extensively with their trunks.

An elephant’s vocal repertoire is officially limited to 4 different sounds, but it’s the different graduations in pitch, duration and volume which enables them to express a wide range of emotional states and this is where the trunks comes into play. If you have ever been on a safari and sat with a breeding herd of elephants you would’ve heard the low rumbling sound resonating from the herd as the are feeding. This sounds doesn’t emanate from the stomach, as was initially believed, but rather stems from the elephant’s larynx.  This is their main form of distance communication and a lot of the time these frequencies are below the human hearing threshold (known as infrasound).
The only time an elephant uses only its trunk to audibly communicate is when you hear the very distinct trumpeting sound. This sound is produced by blowing through the nostrils hard enough to make the trunk resonate. Trumpeting is usually associated with excitement  but can also sound the alarm or for a cry for help.
Besides the obvious audible communication, tactile communication plays an incredibly important role in elephant society, and the flexible and sensitive trunk is their primary means of touch.

Guest image, Judy Boch, elephant interaction

Two elephant cows bond through touch. Photograph by Londolozi Guest Judy Boch.

4.Their trunks can pick up an incredibly wide variety of things.

The dexterity of an elephant’s trunk is one of the most amazing things to observe. At the tip of the African elephant’s trunk there are two almost finger-like appendages that act like opposable thumbs; these are what allow them to pick things up as small as marula fruits, or access the cambium of trees by grabbing small tendrils of bark and tearing them off.
With the trunk being so full of muscle it is tremendously strong, and logs weighing over 150kg can be picked up and tossed aside with impunity. It has been reported that elephants can move logs weighing almost a ton! Elephants in India have been domesticated for thousands of years to be used in the logging industry, shifting very heavy tree trunks on a daily basis.

Elephant Lift Branch Trunk Jt

Certainly not the biggest branch this young elephant is capable of lifting, but one gets the idea. Photograph by James Tyrrell

An Elephant Carries Felled Teak Logs To Stacking Piles For Pickup. Near The Village Of Cochin In Kerala, India, Asian Elephants Are Used To Log Teak From A Commercial Plantation. The Domestication And Use Of Elephants In India Is A Tradition Over 4,000 Yea

An Asian elephant carries a large teak log near the village of Cochin in Kerala, India. The domestication and use of elephants in India is a tradition over 4,000 years old. Photograph by Robert Harding.

From the little to the large, the trunk can handle all of it; pulling down branches over 20 feet high or picking up the tiniest morsels between the nubbins.

Strength and a delicate touch. A great combination in an elephant’s trunk. Photograph by James Tyrrell.

5. An elephant’s trunk is 4 times better at smelling than a bloodhound.

Elephants possess a phenomenal sense of smell.  The upper nasal cavities have chemical and olfactory sensors in the form of millions of receptor cells. So sensitive is an elephant’s trunk that is more capable than a bloodhound’s nose and is said to be able to smell fresh water from almost 20 kilometres away. The nostrils are located at the tip of the trunk and function in breathing and smelling. The sense of smell is in constant use, with the trunk moving back and forth, detecting new scents and information.
For proper analysis, elephants may make physical contact with the substance with the trunk. Then the chemical information is dabbed on to the Jacobson’s organ, a chemical—detection unit located in the soft tissue of the upper palate. The organ is attached to the oral/nasal cavities and functions primarily to detect the oestrus (reproductive) status of a female.

Elephant, smell, trunk, PT, 2018

An elephant sniffs the breeze at it approaches a waterhole. Photograph by Pete Thorpe

With its multi-functional role in an elephant’s day-to-day, the trunk is not only versatile and useful, it is almost indispensable. Although we have observed elephants at Londolozi that have lost their trunks – or at least a portion of them – and seem to be surviving adequately, these individuals invariably have a much harder time of it than the rest of their herd.

Although many factors combined define the elephant’s role in its environment, it is ultimately the trunk that makes them such a successful species.

About the Author

Guy Brunskill


Guy grew up in the city of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. From a very young age he visited the bush each holiday. It was during these early years that his passion and interest was ignited for this incredible environment. After school he acquired a ...

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on 5 Things You Need to Know About an Elephant’s Trunk

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Interesting facts Guy. Elephants are such fascinating animals. We watched adult elephants sucking up water from those round concrete reservoirs in Kruger with their trunks and dropping the water into the small calves mouths. It is amazing what thry can do with their trunks.

Callum Evans

The elephants trunk has got to be one of the most incredible organs ever developed! I read one estimate in one of Joyce Poole’s books that an elephants trunk could contain 180 000 muscles!

Joanne Wadsworth

The elephants trunk and it’s massive abilities are nearly incomprehensible! Thanks for the details. What surprised me was hearing that a trunk can be partially torn off and that the elephant can survive. Due to their massiveness, I know they probably weren’t attacked, so I assume an accident of some sort. I can’t imagine overcoming those deficits.

Malavika Gupta

Guy, this is such a well written and thoroughly researched article. One of the most informative and unique pieces I’ve read in a while. Well done. I look forward to more blogs by you.

Kelly Bernard

Awesome Guy, thanks for the informative post. I learnt a few new things which I will be sure to share with my guests! I have a question, do you know how the elephants on Londolozi lost part of their trunks? That’s so interesting, I’ve never heard that before.

Denise Vouri

What an informative article. I enjoyed learning more about our gentle giants, especially the intricacies of their trunks. The introductory photo of the trunk end is brilliant. Thank you!

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