EleFact Friday: Senses and Communication

In past EleFACTs, we have shared extensively about the ability of elephants to use their five senses in their day-to-day lives, sometimes in remarkable ways. From their dichromatic vision, to their impressive sense of hearing, to their use of touch to communicate or use tools, we have covered many aspects of their anatomy and physiology. Today we want to re-examine the vomeronasal organ, or the Jacobson’s organ, which helps to put these senses together to aid in chemical and olfactory communication.

The Jacobson’s organ exists as a patch of sensory cells in the nasal chamber and detects heavy moisture-borne odors. Elephants will “moisturize” the tip of their trunk with secretions from the nasal cavity and mix it with other fluids from the body, like urine. The tip of the trunk is then placed into their mouth to make contact with the vomeronasal duct in the upper part of the mouth. Here, nerve endings allow for the sensing of the chemicals, or pheromones, contained in the solution. For example, male elephants will use the urine from females to collect reproduction information that exists in the chemical makeup of the fluid. It is fascinating to think that so much information can be collected that ultimately leads to the furthering of the species. 

This organ isn’t just for reproduction. Young elephants can use the Jacobson’s organ to instantly distinguish between their mothers and other female members of the herd by putting their trunks into each other’s mouths. 

In other species, this organ is exposed in a way you may recognize; in what is called the flehmen response, an animal (think of a horse) may open its mouth and curl back their upper lip while inhaling, capturing the airborne chemicals. Other animals that make use of this organ are snakes, who use it to sense prey by sticking their tongues out to gather scents and touching it to the opening of the organ when the tongue is retracted, and painted turtles, which use it to smell underwater.

Photo of Bambi


  1. REPLY
    Barb says

    Fascination! Another educational EleFact Friday we thank you for.

  2. REPLY
    María Elizabeth Alvarez says

    Quite interesting!!

  3. REPLY
    elephant smellovision says

    how cool. do humans have anything like one?

  4. REPLY
    Bonnie says

    Hi what is that bump in the middle of Bambi’s head never noticed it before

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      it’s just her head. it is normal for her, but as she ages she will lose muscle mass along her spine and her head. it happens in humans as well. apparently our heads become more pyramid shape at the top- who knew. this starts once elephants reach the age of 50. Bambi is approximately 59 yrs old, so it’s appropriate that she has a fair bit of muscle loss.

  5. REPLY
    Gayle says

    Cats also use the flehmen response and look quite silly when doing it! Thanks for the interesting article about our always fascinating girls.

  6. REPLY
    Sandi says

    That is so amazing! I’ve never read this before. These ladies just keep getting more interesting with everything that you tell us about them. Thank you for this. Have a wonderful weekend.

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