Elephant Trunks Can Suck Water at 330 Miles Per Hour

A new study puts impressive numbers to some of the elephant trunk’s many feats

African elephant gives itself a dust bath
An African elephant gives itself a dust bath by blasting dirt from its trunk. Martin Heigan via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Elephant trunks are capable of astonishing feats of suction, according to new research. The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, finds that these muscular, 200-pound nasal appendages can suck up three liters (0.8 gallons) of water in a second, a mind-boggling flow-rate equal to about 24 shower heads, reports Katherine J. Wu for the Atlantic. Moving that much water so quickly requires inhaling air at a breathtaking 330 miles per hour. That's 30-times faster than a human sneeze and faster than most high speed trains.

An elephant trunk is useful in just about any situation. This jointless noodle of pure muscle can be used as a snorkel in deep water, rip trees from the ground and, as the authors of this study found out, daintily pluck a potato chip from a table without breaking it.

“It’s like a muscular multitool,” Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author of the study, tells Richard Sima of the New York Times.

To arrive at these marvelous new factoids about the elephant trunk, researchers took high-speed video of a then 34-year-old African savannah elephant named Kelly at Zoo Atlanta and assessed her long nose’s suction capabilities, reports Karina Shah for New Scientist.

Another experiment, in which the team measured the internal volume of a similar-sized, 38-year-old African elephant’s trunk, told researchers that Kelly’s impressive inhalation actually exceeded the volume of water that their measurements suggested would fit inside the appendage.

To investigate further, the team used an ultrasound to see what was happening inside an elephant’s trunk while it was sucking up water, reports Sid Perkins for Science News. This revealed that the nostrils inside the trunk were actually dilating to expand its total volume by up to 64 percent.

Another test using rutabagas demonstrated elephants’ ability to decide how to use their trunk depending on what they’re trying to accomplish. When the researchers presented just a few pieces of rutabaga, the elephant adeptly picked them up using the trunk’s grasping tips, according to Science News. But when the elephant encountered a bigger pile of food, the trunk switched gears and sucked up the morsels for delivery to the mouth.

But remember, an elephant trunk is not a straw. “What they do is actually drink water into their trunk and they store it,” Schulz tells the Times. “So the elephant trunk is actually like a trunk.”

Per the Times, quantifying the trunk’s many impressive feats could offer inspiration for improved robotics. Schulz tells the Times that this research demonstrates how effectively the trunk allows its bearer to "move both air and water to help manipulate different objects.”

According to the Atlantic, Schulz’s next move is to try to create a complete anatomical map of the internal structure of the elephant’s Swiss Army appendage in hopes of revealing more of the mechanisms behind its many uses.

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