Elephant picking up rutabaga cubes using suction

An elephant hoovers up rutabaga cubes, which it will hold in its trunk before manoeuvreing them into its mouth. Credit: Andrew Schulz, Jia Ning Wu

Animal behaviour

Elephants’ trunks are mighty suction machines

The pachyderms can nab a treat lying nearly 5 centimetres away through sheer sucking power.

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) has more tricks up its trunk than heretofore suspected. Not only can it use the tips of its elegant nose like dexterous fingers, but it can also use its trunk to create a strong suction to hold items and pull them closer.

David Hu at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and his colleagues observed zoo elephants as they used suction power to manipulate a variety of items. Elephants hoovered up rutabaga cubes, which the researchers note was accompanied by “a loud vacuuming sound”. They pulled tortilla chips close with the mighty force of their inhalations, which the team calculated exceeded speeds of 150 metres per second, 30 times the speed of a human sneeze.

Mathematical modelling suggests that, thanks to their strong lungs and wide nostrils, elephants can procure tortilla chips from as far away as 4.6 centimetres through suction alone.

Most observations of animals using suction as a tool come from fish and other water-based species. The researchers hope their work will inspire roboticists.