Of all the animals that roam the planet, very few are as strong as the elephant; in fact, it is said that even a lion would think twice before attacking an elephant from the front. Everything about the elephant is fascinating; right from its humongous mass to its unbelievable strength ... from its ivory tusks to its trunk. In fact, the trunk is by far the most fascinating part of the animal's anatomy.
The Anatomy of the 'Trunk'
An elephant's trunk is composed of a very long nose with an upper lip. It has no bones, but has six major muscle groups, with 40,000 muscles subdivided into more than 100,000 muscle units. The trunk weighs around 300 lb (150 kg), is about 2 meters long, and has nerve endings at the tip. This makes the trunk incredibly strong and supple. It is strong enough to lift a log about a foot thick and weighing close to 400 to 500 lb (200 to 250 kg), and is flexible and accurate enough to pick up a coin off the floor. The African elephant has two finger-like protrusions on the tip of its trunk, while the Asian (Indian) elephant has only one.
How Do Elephants Use Their Trunk?
So what all can an elephant do with its trunk or in other words, what functions does a trunk serve? The trunk is the human combination of a hand and nose. So the elephant uses it for showering itself with dust for protection from flies, drinking water, taking showers (a trunks can hold about 2 to 2.5 gallons of water), picking food, breathing (like humans, it can breathe through the mouth as well), sniffing the air for danger, showing affection to loved ones by touching and caressing, playing friendly wrestling matches, lifting and throwing objects, and also for threatening an adversary.
If an elephant charges with its trunk raised outwards, it is most probably a threatening gesture; the elephant is just trying to scare you. However, if it charges with its trunk down, it probably is not a good time to offer it a peanut. That may seem ironic, but the elephant not using its trunk for fights does make sense, as it is the most sensitive part of its body ... and important well.
The trunk is also used for smelling an object; the elephant does so by touching the object with the tip of its trunk and then placing it inside its mouth, where the Jacobson's organ figures out the smell. Elephants also use their trunks as snorkel when swimming under water. In fact, some scientist suggest that it has evolved from an aquatic creature that used a trunk-like appendage as a snorkel. According to some studies, elephants share common ancestors with sea cows. Evidence suggests that the elephants moved from sea to land about 30 million years ago. Obviously the trunk was not needed then for drinking water, but was used for foraging food off the seabed.
When the elephant is on unsteady ground, it will move ahead only after ascertaining whether the ground is firm enough to walk or not. It will do so by beating the ground with its trunk to test its firmness. It will then carefully move forward, the front foot stepping into the cleared area and the rear foot moving onto the place cleared by the front foot. Interestingly, the elephant also uses its trunk to show anger or displeasure by violently beating the ground with it.
If you notice the trunk of a calf (baby elephant), it is relatively short, which makes sense as the calf has no idea how it should be used. In fact, the chances are that the baby will stumble or step on it, and end up injuring itself. They do not use their trunks to suckle their mothers for milk; instead they do it with their mouth. The trunk grows quickly thereafter, and the mother elephant makes it a point to teach its young one how it should be using the complex tool.