[Science & Tech] Elephant trunks are like the human tongue, arm, and nose combined into one incredible organ

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From Clancy Morgan and Benji Jones:

  • Elephant trunks are some of the most impressive noses in the animal kingdom.
  • Trunks are organs called muscular hydrostats and they contain around 40,000 muscles that contract and expand to create intricate movements.
  • Elephants have a stronger sense of smell than any other animal scientists have studied, and can even sniff out landmines in Africa.
  • Watch the video above to find out what's inside an elephant's amazing trunk.

What if you could use your nose to snorkel, or uproot a small tree, or smell water from several miles away? Well, elephants wouldn't be that impressed. They do it on the daily, thanks to what's inside their trunk.

If you were to dissect an elephant trunk, it would actually look more like the inside of your tongue than your nose. Trunks, tongues, and even octopus arms are unique organs called muscular hydrostats. That means they're made almost entirely of muscle, and an elephant's trunk has a lot of them, about 40,000, compared to around 650 muscles in the entire human body. Normally, muscles depend on bones and joints to move and exert force.

When we pick up a dumbbell, for example, our bicep pulls on our forearm bones and that causes them to swing up around our elbow joint. But in an elephant trunk, there are no bones to pull and no joints to hinge on. The muscles take on that role instead. This makes trunks incredibly flexible so they can move in all directions. And all those muscles mean they're powerful enough to lift hundreds of pounds, yet delicate enough to pick up a tortilla chip without even cracking it.

But while trunks may be structured like a tongue and function like an arm, they are, in fact, a nose, and an exceptional one. An animal's sense of smell is linked to the number of olfactory receptor genes it has. And elephants, well, they have a lot of them, nearly 2,000 — more than any other animal we know of. Bloodhounds, for example, only have about 800 while humans have even fewer. In fact, an elephant's nose is so good it can actually sniff out bombs. People have reported that African elephants avoid land mines in Angola and in 2015, researchers put it to the test. Elephants were presented with a lineup of buckets filled with different smells, including TNT, the main ingredient in land mines. Out of 97 TNT samples, elephants detected all but one.

Of course, their trunks didn't evolve as bomb detectors. They use their nose like we use our eyes, to find food and water, to avoid predators, and to map out other elephants nearby. That's like walking into a family reunion with your eyes closed and knowing exactly where everyone is. But if you can believe it, there are even more tricks up their, trunks. When elephants traverse deep rivers, for example, they curve their trunk into a snorkel, and when bathing, they can use it as a hose, or more like a fire hose. With one suck, a trunk can pull in as much as 10 liters of water.

And the trunk's impressive abilities haven't gone unnoticed. In fact, if you stick a mirror in front of an elephant, one of their favorite activities is to open their mouth and check out their trunks. Let's admit it, if you had a nose like that, you would do the exact same thing.

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