Question Corner | Do elephants breathe and drink using their trunks?

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June 05, 2021 09:53 pm | Updated June 06, 2021 11:38 am IST

A herd of elephants in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

A herd of elephants in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

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Elephants have two nostrils in their trunks. They can also suck up water at a speed of three litres per second into their trunk and then blow it into the mouth. New research ( Journal of The Royal Society Interface ) has now found that elephants can dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to suck up to nine litres of water. First author Andrew Schulz, said in a release that the trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary.

The team studied elephants eating various foods, to decode the suction mechanism. They used an ultrasonic probe to measure the trunk walls and see how the inner muscles worked. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. The team suggests elephants can inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's bullet trains.

Lead author David Hu explained that an elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army Knife: It can detect scents and grab things, other times blowing objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum.

The researchers note that by investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements – a combination of suction and grasping – they could build better robots.

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