Why do elephants have trunks… and what are they for?

12 August 2023


On World Elephant Day, we take a closer look this unique feature!

A close-up photo of an elephant's face with trunk raised

What is an elephant’s trunk?

Their trunk is an extended nose fused with the top lip. At the end of their trunks are prehensile ‘fingers’ (prehensile meaning bring able ‘to grasp’) which it uses to curl around objects and pick them up. The African elephant has two ‘fingers’ whilst the Asian elephant only has one.

How many muscles are in an elephant’s trunk?

Incredibly, an elephant’s trunk contains no bones, but almost 40,000 muscles! For comparison the entire human body only has 600 muscles.

Why do elephants even have trunks?

A collection of elephant photos showing calves drinking, grasping grass and communicating with their trunks

Elephants use their trunks for many reasons, including breathing, drinking, feeding grabbing, smelling and trumpeting. Because of this, an elephant’s chance of survival without its trunk, or part of its trunk, is very slim (although not unheard of).

🐘 Feeding and Drinking

An elephant’s trunk is vital for them to feed and drink, however it is a common myth that elephants drink and eat through their trunks. Elephants use their trunks to pick up and reach for food before placing it in their mouth. To drink, elephants suck water up into their trunk and then spray it directly into their mouth.

🐘 Scent

Elephants have an incredible sense of smell, able to detect food that is several miles away. Their nostrils are located at the tip of their trunk and contain more smell receptors than any other mammal – including dogs.

🐘 Communication

An elephant’s trunk is essential for communication, elephants have a range of gestures they use their trunks for, including lifting it high to show a perceived threat, slapping their trunks when facing a predator and intertwining trunks with other elephants to show reassurance, kindness and affection. Most vocalisations elephants make are made in their larynx (a hollow tube found in the throat) – making such low frequency sounds that human ears cannot even detect them – however and elephants trumpet is produced by pushing air through their trunk to show when they’re excited, surprised, scared, lost or feeling happy.

How did the elephant get its trunk?

Scientists believe that their trunk started out as a snorkel millions of years ago in a semi-aquatic ancestor. This snorkel-like trunk would have allowed animals to move underwater for long periods of time. Eventually, due to evolution, the trunk became longer and more versatile into the elephant’s trunk we see today.

Images © George Logan / iStock