Elephants Use Suction in Their Trunks to Eat

suction eating by elephants

An elephant receives a treat from STEF chairman Dr Andrew Higgins

It has always been a remarkable sight, watching an elephant delicately and dexterously pick up a small object from someone’s hand or from the ground using the two fleshy “fingers” at the end of its long and heavy trunk, but what we didn’t know until very recently is that elephants can also use suction to collect food with their trunks.

A study published on June 2nd by the Journal of the Royal Society [1] shows that elephants can pick up small, delicate items using suction, thereby successfully transfer something like a tortilla chip to their mouth without breaking it. This suction technique was previously thought to be used only by fish.

We already knew that elephants might have had aquatic ancestors (see paragraph 4 of our journal post) and that they can use their trunks like snorkels when swimming in deep water, but to discover that they also mimic fish in their ability to use suction to pick up food is remarkable. It means that elephants are the only animals on earth currently known to use suction on the ground and underwater to get food or liquid.

[1] The study was carried out by a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology using elephants from Atlanta Zoo. You can read the full research article here.

Other reading: “Have you herd? Elephant trunks use suction to eat” by Tom Knowles (The Times )

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