Quirks & Quarks

How an elephant's trunk acts as a "muscular multitool"

An elephant’s trunk can be used for feats of strength like smacking away potential predators, but can also be used to pluck the smallest bits of vegetation from the ground. Now, new research is shining light on just how impressive these appendages are.

New study shows that elephants use suction in air and water - a rarity in the animal kingdom

New research shows how elephants can use their trunk to suck in air and water at impressive speeds. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)

When it comes to impressive appendages, an elephant's trunk is a versatile standout in the animal kingdom. It can be used for feats of strength like smacking away potential predators, but can also be used to pluck the smallest bits of vegetation from the ground. 

"I kind of think of it as a muscular multitool," mechanical engineer Andrew Schulz told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "It can do all of this with flexibility, while being an immensely strong appendage that can lift lions, that can bulldoze down trees."

Using trained elephants from Zoo Atlanta, Schulz led a study to look at how the elephant trunk can accomplish these feats without having any bones or joints. He found that elephants can use their trunk to apply an impressive level of suction in both air and water, which is a rarity in the animal kingdom.

An elephant uses its trunk to guzzle up water at a rate of 3 litres/second. (Andrew Schulz/Georgia Tech)

The team found that elephants can use suction to inhale water at a rate of three litres per second, and can suction air with a velocity of 150 metres per second. They can also increase the volume of their trunks by expanding their nostrils by up to 60 per cent. 

"Imagine that you're staring at 20 toilets that are all flushing at the exact same time, and that's the amount of water that they can intake at once," said Schulz, who's pursuing his Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He wants to apply the lessons learned from this research into building better soft robotics.

You can listen to Schulz's full conversation with Bob McDonald at the link above.


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz

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