Sleeping Sunshine and her sweet pink trunk!

Khanyisa was born, like all elephants with an unruly and headstrong trunk, a proboscis or snout that takes its new owner some getting used to.

Even its name is somewhat of a mystery as we swim in trunks, use them for storage, make trunk calls and drive on trunk roads. The trunk is the main central section of our own body and of the ‘body’ of trees and there seems to be no link between these disparate items and that elongated nasal vocal tract. 

Elephant calves are born with a trunk that is equal parts mystery and potential and they will spend the first several months doing little with it besides swinging it about and wondering what it’s for. Albino calf, Khanyisa will suck on her trunk while she watches and learns from the adults and by the time she is a year old she will have learnt the basics. She has already begin to use her trunk for eating, drinking and mud and sand-flinging, but it will take her many years to master the art of elephant talk.

The bark, the cry, the grunt, the husky cry, the rev, the earth-shaking roar and a rumble that you can feel rather than hear are produced in the throat while the trumpet, the nasal-trumpet and the snort are trunk-produced sounds, according to ‘Elephant Voices’ researcher Joyce Poole. Like vowels, consonants, words and sentences, these combine into the 70 distinct calls used by the African savanna elephant and Khanyisa needs to learn them all if she is to be able to hold a conversation with her own kind.

Interestingly, like elephants, we too as humans, use a combination of nasal and oral sounds and if you block your own proboscis while reciting the alphabet you might notice that we also speak through our noses.

Plenty of mammals make long-distance calls to distant family members. Lions roar, hyenas laugh, sperm whales click and elephants trumpet with the aid of the largest nose-lip combination on the planet.

Albino orphan, Khanyisa’s little pink trunk back in January.

Much has been written about the power of an elephant’s trunk, from lifting unbelievable weights to upending entire forests, but perhaps its value lies elsewhere. The one sure sign that a charging elephant is serious is when they tuck their mighty trunk safely out of the way and so, not only does young Khanyisa need to master its mysteries, she also needs to treat it with the respect that it deserves.

The muscles in an adult elephant’s trunk gives the animal incredible control for when they’re picking single fruit with the two ‘fingers’ at its tip, swimming in the dam and using the trunk as a snorkel or lifting a young elephant from the mud.

The trunk is to the elephant what necks are to giraffes and hands to primates, helping it to acquire food. But it’s far more sensitive – what with their thousands of whiskers that are sensitive to the slightest touch, with nerves directing messages to the brain. It’s believed that the tip of the trunk is 10 times more sensitive than a human finger.

Elephants are believed to have the best sense of smell of all animals and that’s their incredible trunks’ doing, with their two nostrils running the full length and around 20 million scent receptors that enable the elephants to detect and identify individuals from far away, to find water in dry season, and to interpret emotional states such as excitement, fear, stress and sexual receptivity.

Khanyisa’s whiskery pale pink trunk.

Elephants also use their trunks to greet, console, touch, stroke and caress.

You may have seen them putting their trunks into their own mouths after sniffing around another elephant or dung on the ground. This method of obtaining information is known as the Flehmen Response and is common in many animals. The trunk tip is used as a chemical receptor – allowing them to obtain chemical information about other elephants.

They touch the trunk tip against a substance, like urine, faeces or temporal gland secretions, the trunk tip is then pressed against the roof of their mouth to the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ where the chemical is analysed for the information it possesses.

Without doubt, the elephant’s trunk is one of the most curious, multi-tasking and fascinating of earthly creations and yet another tool in the deep bonding and complex social life of elephants and the ensured survival of the herd.


Hugs & Handshakes, Elephant Style ~ A Tale of the Trunk!

The Silent Language of Elephants & Other Animals ~ The Jacobson Organ

The Anatomy of an Elephant – Elephant Skin!

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