Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Elephant’s Trunk: An Elegant Multi-Purpose Tool

The elephant's trunk is an elegant multi-purpose tool.

Joel Kontinen

The elephant’s trunk is an elegant multi-purpose tool. It can move and pick up both huge objects and tiny ones and anything in between as well.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta featuring a captive African elephant called Kelly shows just how effective this tool is.

They offered Kelly four different kinds of food, of different sizes – powdered bran, cubed bran, cubed swede and cubed celery – and noticed that the elephant was able to change the shape of her trunk and exert just the force needed to pick up the food.

New Scientist gives us some details:

Kelly’s secret, it turns out, was her ability to create a kink at any point along her 2-metre-long trunk that would provide exactly the right downward force to grip each size of food item.

The kink acted like a joint that subdivided her trunk into two sections: a long section that supported the weight of the trunk and a short tip pointing vertically downwards for dexterous gripping

Intelligent solutions do not appear out of thin air. They have to be designed.

And the elephant’s trunk seems to be designed amazingly well:

“Kelly could reduce the downward force for particularly delicate object handling by making the vertical part of her trunk shorter – and increase the force by making the vertical section longer.

In other words, Kelly had the ability to fine-tune how much force to apply by altering the position of the ‘kink’ in her trunk

Many other features in animals bear the hallmarks of intelligent design. A recent study looked at the zebra’s tail, which is also a very effective tool.

Other examples include the Saiga antelope’s air-conditioning nose, the penguin’s anti-free feathers and an anti-crash system in birds, to mention just a few.


Coghlan, Andy. 2017. The trunk trick that lets elephants pick up almost anything. New Scientist (9 January).