How an elephant’s trunk manipulates the air for eating and drinking

PICTURE: Andrew Schulz led the study as a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Student. view After

Credit: Andrew Schultz, Georgia Tech

New research from the Georgia Institute of Technology reveals that elephants dilate their nostrils to create more space in their proboscis, allowing them to store up to nine liters of water. They can also suck up three liters per second – a speed 50 times faster than a human sneeze (150 meters per second / 330 mph).

The Georgia Tech College of Engineering study sought to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food, and other objects. They also investigated whether mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use the movement of air to hold and move objects.

As octopuses use jets of water to move around and archerfish shoot water above the surface to catch insects, researchers at Georgia Tech have found that elephants are the only animals capable of ” use suction on land and underwater.

The article “Suction feeding of elephants” is published in the Royal Society Interface Journal.

“An elephant eats about 400 pounds of food a day, but very little is known about how it uses its trunk to collect light food and water for 18 hours, each day,” Georgia Tech said. , Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. student Andrew Schulz, who led the study. “It turns out their trunks act like suitcases, able to expand if necessary.”

Schulz and the Georgia Tech team worked with vets at the Atlanta Zoo, studying elephants as they ate a variety of foods. For large cubes of rutabaga, for example, the animal grabbed them and picked them up. He sucked up smaller cubes and made a loud vacuuming noise, or the sound of someone sipping noodles, before transferring the vegetables into his mouth.

To learn more about sucking, the researchers gave the elephants a tortilla chip and measured the force applied. Sometimes the animal would press on the chip and breathe, hanging the chip on the end of the trunk without breaking it. It was like a person inhaling a piece of paper over their mouth. Other times the elephant would apply suction from a distance, pulling the chip to the edge of its trunk.

“An elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss army knife,” said David Hu, Schulz advisor and professor at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “It can detect smells and grab objects. Other times it blows things like a leaf blower or sniffs them like a vacuum cleaner.”

By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time times and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked 3.7 liters, the equivalent of 20 simultaneous flushes.

An ultrasound probe was used to take measurements of the trunk wall and see how the internal muscles of the trunk are functioning. By contracting these muscles, the animal expands its nostrils by up to 30 percent. This decreases the wall thickness and increases the nasal volume by 64 percent.

“At first it didn’t make sense: an elephant’s nasal passage is relatively small and it was inhaling more water than it should,” said Schulz. “It wasn’t until we saw the ultrasound images and watched the nostrils dilate that we realized how they did it. The air opens up the walls and the animal can store a lot more water than it does. we initially estimated. ”

Based on the pressures applied, Schulz and the team suggest that elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japanese high-speed trains at 300 mph.

Schulz said these unique characteristics have applications in soft robotics and conservation efforts.

“By studying the mechanics and physics behind the movements of the core muscles, we can apply the physical mechanisms – combinations of suction and grip – to find new ways to build robots,” Schulz said. “In the meantime, the African elephant is now listed as an endangered species due to poaching and habitat loss. Its trunk makes it a unique species to study. By learning more about them, we can learn how to better conserve elephants in the wild. “


The work was supported by the US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research O? Ce 294 Mechanical Sciences Division, Complex Dynamics and Systems Program, under contract number 295 W911NF-12-R-0011. All opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsoring agency.

QUOTE: Schulz AK,, “Suction feeding by elephants.” (Royal Society Interface Journal 20210215) https: //do /ten.1098 /rsif.2021.0215

The Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, is one of the top 10 public research universities that develops leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition. The Institute offers degrees in business, computer science, design, engineering, liberal arts, and science. Its nearly 40,000 students representing 50 states and 149 countries study at the main Atlanta campus, campuses in France and China, and through distance and online learning. As a leading technological university, Georgia Tech is an engine of economic development for Georgia, the Southeast, and the country, conducting more than $ 1 billion in research per year for government, industry and the society.

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