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Africa Geographic
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Elephants and their trunks

One of the most peculiar, yet fascinating, appendages on an elephant is its trunk.

Rather like a combination of a nose and an upper lip, an elephant’s trunk is its lifeline. It would find it very difficult to survive without one.

It uses its trunk to smell, breathe, detect vibrations, greet its friends and family, caress its little ones, suck up water and pick up enormous weights (up to 350kg or 770lbs) or a delicate twig with its two opposing finger-like extensions.

Elephant and its trunk

Using over 40,000 muscles in its trunk, an elephant will wave it to and fro in the air to get a better scent of something. It’s said that an elephant can smell water a kilometre or two away, giving it a better sense of smell than trusty bloodhounds.

Elephants walking in the wild

At birth, an elephant’s trunk is short but it grows rapidly over the next few days. Baby elephants are very cute and humorous as they can’t use their trunks properly for the first six months of their lives, almost tripping over them as they run.

A baby elephant running

They are barely able to tuck them out the way to suckle from their mothers or to kneel at waterholes for a drink until they learn to suck up water with their trunks.

Up close of a baby elephant and its trunk

The trunk is boneless but heavy, weighing up to 180kg (400lbs) and grows up to 2m (7ft) long. No wonder they often curl their trunks over their tusks to ‘take a load off’ when they’re resting.

An elephant is able to sense the weight, shape, temperature and size of an object with its trunk. They are also excellent swimmers, using their trunks as snorkels, especially useful when crossing rivers in search of better feeding.

Elephants at a waterhole

Almost like a single arm, elephants use their trunks to greet each other and hug their young or nudge them in the right direction.

Fortunately, elephants are canny and resilient in the wild, and this video shows how an elephant – that lost almost half its trunk through injury or accident – has successfully adapted to drinking with a ‘shorter straw’.

Filmed by our head guide, Simon Vegter, on safari in Kruger National Park.

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Wild Wings Safaris is a specialist African safari operator and Kruger Park ground operator, with offices in the UK and South Africa. We offer tailor-made safaris and custom wildlife tours throughout Southern and East Africa. Member of ABTA and SATSA.