An Elephant's Useful Baggage.

A trunkful of potential abilities and the brain to bring them to reality.

An elephant trunk has 40,000 muscles and weighs more than a Burmese python. It is strong enough to uproot a tree, yet sensitive enough to suction up fragile tortilla chips.

But how does an elephant's brain help accomplish such feats of dexterity? That has been difficult to study, according to Michael Brecht, a neuroscientist at Humboldt University of Berlin. 

Weighing more than 10 pounds, the elephant's brain degrades quickly after death and is difficult to store.

But Dr. Brecht and his colleagues were able to study elephant brains from animals that had died of natural causes or had been euthanized for health reasons at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

In a new study, Dr. Brecht and his colleagues reported that elephants have more facial neurons than any other land mammal, which might contribute to trunk dexterity and other anatomical abilities.

The study also helped pinpoint differences between the neural wirings and African savanna elephants and Asian elephants.

The African savanna elephants have significantly more facial neurons than their Asian counterparts.  Among other differences, the two species use their trunks differently :

African elephants use two fingerlike projections on the tips of their trunks to pinch objects, like the motion made with a pair of chopsticks; Asian elephants  have only one fingerlike projection and grasp objects by wrapping their trunks around them. [ Jack Tamisiea ].


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