Elephants use their trunks to smell, touch and sometimes paint lovely little self-portraits. But how helpful is a trunk when it comes to eating tasty breakfast cereal?
Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology wanted to find out. Their goal wasn't to see whether elephants preferred Cheerios to Count Chocula, but to see how the mammoths use their trunks to handle tiny, granular materials. Understanding these advanced trunk mechanics could inspire the development of future robots that more efficiently grip and move things like sand and gravel, the researchers wrote in a study published Oct.1 in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface. Plus — answering this question meant the researchers got to work with a really cool African elephant named Kelly for several weeks last summer.
The team visited Kelly on her turf at Zoo Atlanta with bags of wheat bran cereal in tow. They also brought along some carrots and rutabagas, chopped into cubes of varying size. Over 24 trials, the team fed Kelly either a pile of cereal or vegetables served on a special plate that measured the amount of force Kelly's trunk exerted while scooping up each treat.
To eat the larger veggie pieces, Kelly wrapped the side of her trunk around them and scooped them up into her mouth. To eat the cereal, however, she smooshed the tip of her trunk down over the pile of grains, then pinched the tip of her nose into a rigid joint. Kelly's nose-clamp successfully forced the grains into a more uniform lump that she could readily shepherd into her mouth. This clamping process took a lot more effort — about 40 newtons of force (about one-twentieth the average force you exert when humans bite something) compared with just 10 newtons to scoop up the larger chunks.
What does this tell us? Mainly that elephant trunks are even more versatile than scientists previously knew. That's handy, because elephants are notoriously big eaters — according to the Georgia Tech researchers, elephants eat about 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of vegetation every single day. And it's a good thing they like their veggies, too; 440 pounds is about 335 boxes of Cheerios.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.