An Elephant Can Telescope Its Trunk Thanks to Unique Skin

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An elephant’s trunk has unique skin that is as important as its muscles when it comes to flexibility and telescoping abilities, according to engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology working with Zoo Atlanta.

What to know:

  • An elephant’s trunk is a multipurpose, muscular hydrostat for which skin is another tool, moving along with the trunk muscles to telescope and gradually lengthen in waves, with the top of the trunk being more flexible than is the bottom.

  • An elephant first extends the tip of its trunk, then the adjacent section, and so on, gradually working its way back toward its body, with the progressive telescoping movement toward the base being a deliberate process.

  • The folded skin on the top of an elephant’s trunk is 15% more flexible than the wrinkled underside, with a thick sheet of skin moving along with muscle.

  • The section at the end of the elephant’s trunk is 1 L of muscle, whereas the section closest to its mouth is 11-15 L of muscle, so an elephant will first stretch the end of its trunk, then the adjacent section because they’re easier to move.

  • Flexible skin folds are unique to elephants, protecting the upper or dorsal section and making it easier for the elephant to reach downward with its trunk, which is the elephant’s most common gripping style when picking up items.

This is a summary of the article “Skin Wrinkles and Folds Enable Asymmetric Stretch in the Elephant Trunk” published by Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on July 18, 2022. The full article can be found on pnas.org.

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