Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why do elephants have long trunks?” you ask? Good question. (Besides, it beats answering the question: “Why do they let the boy animals walk around without pants so that everyone can see their bathroom parts?” (Seriously? Little girl is your mommy not home again? Humans are the only animals that wear pants and not all of us like it to be honest.)
If you had literate parents or are an avid reader, you might have read Rudyard (The Jungle Book) Kipling’s elephant child story. While it does provide a colorful answer to the question: “Why do elephants have long trunks?” it unfortunately is not correct. (If you missed the story, Google it and read it then read this part again so you get it.)
According to the BBC and a new study published in the journal Acta Zoologica, an investigative team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands , modeled how the trunks and tongues of 18 species of herbivore was linked to the quantity of food consumed while grazing. They also used a process named allometric scaling, a biological “law” which the BBC notes “states that the size of an animal is in proportion to how much it eats.”
One of the study’s co-authors, Fred de Boer, stated: “We observed that they ate much more than you would predict on the basis of their mouth volume and skull dimensions. (T)he the soft body parts – the lips tongues and trunks – are the key to their survival, otherwise they could not take in sufficient food.”
Melissa Hogenboom of BBC Earth adds: “How much they can bite in one go (bite volume) is therefore a direct result of these elongated soft mouth parts.”
The researchers also believe that elephants’ long trunks evolved as an “adaptation to the quality of edible plants in their environment.”
Palaeontologist William Sanders from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan believes there are additional aspects of the development of herbivores which may “have played equally important roles” in the evolution of elephants’ long trunks.
He points out that the size of an animal’s teeth, how those teeth are replaced and how an animal’s digestive system operates would also affect how it eats and thus have an influence on how the trunk evolved.
Sanders says: “Skulls, faces and mouths are formed of interrelated anatomical complexes, and that evolution of one part of these complexes will almost always have an effect on the others.”
Hogenboom adds: “About eight million years ago, elephant ancestors relied heavily on grazing from the ground but they had two sets of elongated tusks which prevented them from eating with only their mouths.”
Sanders agrees that elephants have long trunks because of evolution. He feels, however, that they evolved to their current length as a way of accommodating large tusks.
Why do elephants have long trunks? Now you know.
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