No Task Too Tough

Is there anything an elephant can't do with its trunk?

An elephant's trunk is a marvel of biology. Devoid of any joints or bone, the trunk is an appendage made of pure muscle that is capable of both uprooting trees and gingerly plucking individual leaves.

And it supports a sense of smell more powerful than that of a bomb-sniffing dog.

Elephants use their trunks to drink, store and spray water and also blow air through it to communicate - their 110 decibel bellows can be heard for miles.

''It's like a muscular multi tool,'' said Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Contrary to popular belief, the trunk does not act like a straw. ''What they do is actually drink water into their trunk and they store it,'' Mr. Schulz said.

But in a new study, Mr. Schulz and his colleagues report that the trunk has yet another function : applying suction to grab food, a behaviour previously found only in fishes.

Working closely with keepers at Zoo Atlanta, researchers videotaped how Kelly, a female African elephant weighing over 7,400 pounds, grabbed different types of food, including a tortilla chip. When presented with many small rutabaga cubes the elephant inhaled air through her trunk for suction to pick them up.

The secret to the elephant's sucking power seems to lie in its large nostrils and specialized respiratory system.

The new study could have useful applications for improving robotics. Animal appendages like elephant trunks and octopus arms have already inspired innovations in soft robotics. [Richard Sima]


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