Undoubtedly one of the elephant’s most distinctive features is its unique trunk, measuring over 6 feet long in some cases (the height of a tall human) and capable of lifting over 750 lbs this special appendage is one of the most flexible and useful in all the animal kingdom.
But how did elephants end up with something as unique as their trunks? There are a number of theories as to why this strange hybrid of nose and mouth might have evolved in the gentle giants and all of them tell us more about the elephants unique way of life and other special characteristics.
Eating all day long
The first theory is largely to do with food and water, elephants have to eat and drink a truly staggering amount each day to survive and spend most of their day (over 20 hours!) searching for and eating food or drinking water.
Not only does the trunk enable elephants to scoop food off the ground without bending down from their not insignificant height of 10 feet it also means they can grab food from high up trees to not reachable by many other animals. The trunk also is able to grab and hold food ready for the next mouthful enabling elephants to eat continuously and efficiently when they do find a rich food source, which is very important when you have over 500 lbs of food to get through a day!
Their trunks also help elephants to drink the over 50 gallons of water they need a day, the trunk can suck up and hold up to 3 gallons of water at a time.
The world’s biggest nose
The second suspected reason for the trunk is to do with smell. Elephant’s trunks are actually an extended nose that is fused with part of their upper lip. As a result elephant’s trunks give them a tremendous sense of small, superior to many other animals in their native habitats. This means elephants are easily able to detect predators and sense food and water at great distances, reportedly up to several miles away.
Some have speculated that the development of trunk is to do with elephants speaking to each other, elephants are very social creatures and their trunks allow for very complicated vocalisations when communicating with one another. Elephants even intertwine their trunks with their friends and families in a greeting of sorts.
The swimming elephant?
The final (and perhaps most fun) theory is to with the evolutionary heritage of elephants. When elephants swim they sometimes use their trunk as a makeshift snorkel, enabling them to swim with the majority of their body underwater whilst relying on their trunk to supply them with oxygen.
Some of the elephant’s closest relatives are aquatic mammals which could suggest that elephant’s ancestors spent more time in the water too. To add to this elephants also have specially adapted lungs that can withstand the extra pressure that comes with using the trunk as a snorkel.
Could it be possible that trunks are a useful leftover from a time when the elephant’s ancestors swam in the seas?
What makes an elephant unique?
Whatever the reason for them, we can all agree that part of what makes elephants so special is their fantastic trunks. This marvel of nature contains 40,000 muscles (vs just over 600 in the whole human body), is capable of lifting immense weight and is dextrous enough to help elephants complete a variety of complex tasks.
Trunks might look clumsy and goofy at first but their unique appearance and many uses are part of what have made elephants one of the most instantly recognisable and loved animals on the planet.