EleFact Friday: Extraordinary Elephant Faces

By bringing you EleFACTS every week, we get to share knowledge with our wonderful supporters about the scientific and biological aspects of elephant bodies, behaviors, and adaptations. While we consider ourselves pretty experienced in the field, we’re always learning, either from being out in the habitats with the sanctuary elephants or from the studies and research of others. Today we want to talk about an article that was recently released that increased our elephant knowledge. 

The Smithsonian Magazine published a piece this week detailing the research of a team from the Humboldt University of Berlin who have studied the elephant facial motor nucleus. This part of the brain controls the muscles in the face, including the dexterous and capable trunk. The team found that elephants possess more facial neurons than any other land mammal, most certainly contributing to the skills of their trunks. For comparison, elephants have six times more neurons in the musculature of their faces than humans.

In their studies, the team examined the brains of four Asian elephants and four African savanna elephants. They discovered that about half of elephants’ facial neurons are dedicated to the trunk, and the brain cells controlling the tip of the trunk’s movement are larger than those associated with the parts of the trunk that are closer to the face.

Looking at the two species, researchers found that each used their trunks differently, which they could see reflected in their neurological makeup. As we’ve talked about before, an Asian elephant has one prehensile finger at the tip of the trunk, while African savanna elephants have two. The African elephants use the two ‘fingers’ to hold items, where Asian elephants wrap their entire trunks around objects to move them. They found that the African elephants have more prominent neuron clusters for control of those muscles in the tip of the trunk. 

It seems that no matter how much we learn about these fascinating beings, there is always more to discover about their mighty sizes and even mightier abilities. 

Photo of Rana and her magnificent trunk


  1. REPLY
    Melinda says

    Wow, that is fascinating! TY for sharing!

  2. REPLY
    Carol says

    Unbelievable. They are miraculous beings as are all animals. Loved this information.

  3. REPLY
    Wim says

    Thank you. Extraordinary skills keep on surprising watching the versatility of elephants.

  4. REPLY
    Susy says

    Gracias..cada vez aprendo más sobre mis bellos Elefantes. Ustedes y mis lecturas sobre ellos hacen que los ame y admire cada vez más. Un beso. Feliz sábado y domingo

  5. REPLY
    Andrea Kerin says

    Amazing elephants. Thank you for sharing. I sincerely hope that the scienctific data was aquired through noninvasive, noncompulsary methods. I already know elephants are extraordinary simply by their very existence. xo

  6. REPLY
    Carey says

    According to their video the Smithsonian zoo hopes to breed elephants and bring more elephants in??

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      That’s an unfortunate practice that some zoos partake in. Obviously it goes against our principles.

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