EleFact Friday: More on Noses and Trunks

After sharing a few observation camera videos over the last few weeks, specifically of Lady having a happy, splashing time in the rain, we received quite a few questions about the trunks of elephants, specifically how they can play in water and mud and not choke or get things stuck in their trunk. 

When writing this EleFACT, we thought it would be fairly simple to find the information about what seems like a common question or topic. Truthfully, medical information about elephants is sometimes hard to find and, even for this post, it took quite a bit of digging from several people to find accurate information. Facts that you would think would be readily available or easy to find sometimes don’t exist, even for those who are experts in the field. It seems that there’s a limited library of knowledge available for people to learn about what makes elephants unique, which motivates us to continue to educate ourselves and others to the best of our ability. 

Let’s get back to the facts: despite what some may think, elephants can’t drink through their trunks, much like humans can’t drink through their noses. Their nose acts more as a vessel to suck water into their trunk to spray it into their mouth to drink properly. When elephants pull water up into their trunks, it doesn’t go far back enough in their head that it reaches their sinuses, thanks to a muscular structure that allows them to pinch their nasal passages closed. This muscular structure is a little mysterious; we do know, however, that the involuntary pinching saves elephants from quite a bit of headache (literally). Research also shows that there’s a valve, similar and additional to the the epiglottis, that closes, blocking water from entering down through the larynx and into the lungs.

Elephants have also been said to have a pharyngeal pouch, a fairly unique characteristic. Located in front of the epiglottis, it allows space for water to be stored for use in times when it is scarce. Quite a bit of research has been done on this pouch and the physiology behind how it works, and results have been a bit inconclusive. It seems to be just another mysterious phenomenon that makes up elephants’ day-to-day lives.

Photo of Rana showing off her lovely trunk


  1. REPLY
    John says

    How much would you estimate the trunk weighs on an elephant the size of Rana?

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      There’s really no way to know. But an Asian elephant’s trunk can weigh up to 300 pounds.

  2. REPLY
    María Elizabeth Alvarez says

    They are so cuteeeee

  3. REPLY
    Luanne L Schick says

    Merry Christmas to all the Angels 😇 without visible wings 😇. God bless 🙌 🙏 all your Amazing Hearts for Rescuing and protecting those magnificent creatures. Thank you. Love ❤️ Huzs from Alberta Canada.

  4. REPLY
    Barb says

    The pouch was new for me! Thanks for an excellent EleFACT. Beautiful photo displaying a gorgeous trunk that Rana has!

  5. REPLY
    Richard Chiger says

    Jehezkal Shoshani did extensive research on elephants trunks and determined that there were 40,000 muscles or muscle bundles in an elephants trunk. His research is worth reading, he was the head of the Elephant Research Foundation. Unfortunately, he died in a bus that was bombed on his way back to Eritrea, where he was teaching, from Ethiopia.

  6. REPLY
    Richard Chiger says

    There are many differences between the trunk structure of Asian and African elephant. It might be very interesting to learn more about that here. Also, has there been much research on the Forest elephant. I have only seen one study.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      That’s not a bad idea for a future EleFact. We’ll have to look into it.

  7. REPLY
    Mary Rempel says

    I follow the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust page. They rescue orphan elephants in Kenya and reintegrate them when the babies have matured and decide its time for them to return to the wild. Recently, one of their more rambunctious babies got a stone stuck in his trunk. They had to get a vet out to remove it for him. He couldn’t dislodge it, though he tried valiantly. His name is Ndotto. He was rescued as a newborn in 2014, one of the smallest babies they’ve raised. To date, SWT rescued orphan elephants have given birth to over 50 wild born babies in Kenya, many of them bring their babies back to meet the keepers who raised the moms.

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      Yes – Sheldrick does extensive work with elephant calves. That’s interesting about the little one’s trunk. They are inquisitive little beings.

  8. REPLY
    Brenda says

    Thank you much for this education. I spent 40 yrs in human medical yet now only wish to learn about these angels and help save them. I truly respect and love these beautiful creatures a true gift from GODl !!!

  9. REPLY
    Tammy says

    Brenda, you are amazing you just made my day thank you for your compassion and love for these beautiful gentle giants they can use all the help they can get from us! Sending you a big hug God bless, Tammy

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