EleFact Friday: How Essential Are Trunks?

In last week’s EleFact, we spent time looking at the incredible capabilities of elephant trunks and received an interesting question: in situations where elephants unfortunately lose their trunks or their abilities to use them properly, how do they adapt? Today we’ll be tackling this and taking a closer look. 

In our personal experience, we have actually worked with several elephants who have had different degrees of trunk paralysis. This seems to be something that more prominently affects elephants in captivity, but it’s undetermined if it results from neurological injury or vitamin deficiency or something else altogether. Regarding the elephants that we have worked with, we have found that they are highly adaptable. From finding ways to control their trunks with the help of gravity and momentum, like by throwing their trunks and spraying water or throwing food, or becoming more willing to take food or water by mouth, there are certainly ways that elephants can live sustainable lives, although perhaps not as gracefully. It’s important to mention that these elephants in particular were still able to use the tips of their trunks, allowing them to graze; as we know, this is imperative to their physical and mental well-being. A truly important aspect in our work is to ensure that the elephants stay fed and hydrated in whatever way that is, especially those who are geriatric or suffer in other physical ways from captivity. 

Unfortunately, there are cases in the wild where elephants may lose partial pieces of their trunk or the entirety of it altogether. Whether this is a result of manmade traps or larger predators, several cases have been seen where wild elephants use their social structure to aid in adaptation to such difficult injuries. From being fed by other herdmates or other members of the family unit helping to bring leaves or other vegetation down to a lower level, it has been observed that the species can find ways to exist in the wild with a bit more effort. Like any physical disability or handicap seen across the animal kingdom, trunk injuries are not as dire as they may seem, thanks to their amazing adaptability of the elephant species itself and their social support structures. 

Photo of Lady


  1. REPLY
    Julie says

    Thank you. While the idea of a wild elephant without part of its trunk is heartbreaking, it is encouraging and beautiful to know the herd moves in to assist. I have seen a documentary on Forrest elephants that had some video of a handicapped teenagish elephant with half-length front legs. It was suggested that the her may assist in its survival. This post helps me believe this suggestion may be true.

  2. REPLY
    Diane Kastel says

    I saw this case on a “Nature” documentary, and, it disturbed me that the, elephant, calf, with a, very, shortened trunk could not drink?

    Although I am grateful for your explanation to address a, handicapped, trunk in a, wild, elephant. I am, still, concerned that the, elephant, calf, with a, very, shortened trunk can, still, survive. Can his herd mates dispense water to him?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      there have been elephants seen in the wild with very short trunks that will drink like a baby- so they lower their mouth to the water to drink. the trunk is just essentially water transport, so they can drink without it. i’m not sure about other elephants putting water in their mouths- that i have never seen, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

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