Wondernose: What animal has no bones in its nose—only 40,000 muscles?

by Rebecca Martin | Jul 1, 2023 | 0 comments

African elephant
African elephant. Photo © Neil Weiler.

Right on, Wondernose! You guessed the answer instantly—which is no surprise, really. A nose containing 40,000 muscles must surely be the world’s largest nose—and who but the elephant can claim that honor?

Those 40,000 muscles certainly explain why the elephant’s trunk is such a versatile tool. What other animal can use its nose like a shower, spraying water over its body? Other times an elephant will spray dust rather than water over itself, whatever it takes to get rid of those pesky insects! And, of course, an elephant can use his trunk to pick up tremendously heavy objects.

I’ve been told, Wondernose, that an elephant’s sense of smell is the most acute of the entire animal kingdom. Where else but in that amazing trunk would we find such a sense of smell? The nostrils are located at the tip of the trunk. If you observe an elephant, you will notice that the trunk is in constant motion, twisting and curling, testing the air for odors. I don’t believe you or I could get very close to an elephant before that sensitive trunk would detect our presence.

Elephants are the world’s largest land animal. There are several kinds. The African elephant can reach a maximum height of up to 13 feet (4 m) at the shoulders and may weigh 6.5 tons (6 mt). The Asian elephant is only 9-10 feet (3 m) tall.

In what other ways do the kinds differ? Well, the African elephant has bigger ears and tusks. Its forehead is more sloping, and its back has a hollow slope. All elephants have five toes. However, Asian elephants and African forest elephants only have four toenails on their hind feed. The African bush elephant only has four toenails on the front feet, and three on the back.

Elephants have conveyor-belt teeth. Does that sound puzzling, Wondernose? It works like this. During its lifetime, an elephant will typically go through six sets of four teeth, but it does not have them all at once. When the teeth at the front of the mouth become worn down to stumps, the next ones move forward and push them out. Once the last teeth have been worn down, the elephant must die. But those teeth move slowly. An elephant’s lifespan is from fifty to seventy years.

It’s hard to grasp how much food an elephant eats in its lifetime. Elephants are vegetarians, meaning they eat only plants. A single elephant consumes up to a quarter ton of green fodder every day! And along with that, it needs some 50 gallons (190 L) of water. So when a zoo decides to buy an elephant, it’s a major chore to keep that beast fed.

In the wild, elephant overpopulation is sometimes a problem. They need so much food! Picture a herd of elephants grazing the woods on your farm. How long would the forest last if each elephant needs a quarter ton of greenery per day? Tall trees are no problem to an elephant. With its broad, strong forehead it will simply bulldoze a tree down so it can eat the top branches.

Besides food, every elephant needs a wallow—a place to take a bath, whether in water or mud. Since an elephant has no fur, its skin must be conditioned through frequent bathing. Did you say you thought they did have hair, Wondernose? Well, yes, they have a few bristly ones scattered here and there, but nothing that will protect the skin from the elements.

You’d think skin an inch (2.5 cm) thick would be pretty tough, and it is in some ways. But even the thickest skin will crack if exposed to excessive sunshine. Does an inch-thick hide protect an elephant from cold? Not much. Elephants simply can’t take frost. So that’s another challenge for zoos in northern climates—keeping elephants warm.

Although adult elephants have few enemies, it’s a different story for the babies. Tigers like to eat baby elephants. Moms and related female elephants all guard to protect a baby from marauding tigers.

Male elephants leave their moms when seven to twelve years old, and either live alone or with other males.

I find it amazing that people have been able to tame these huge strong animals. They can do a lot of hard work, such as carrying enormous logs over mountainous terrain. Elephants are very intelligent and can learn to do a job well.

You say you have two more questions. Fire away, Wondernose.

One: Why are elephant’s ears so big? Well, the short answer is that’s how God created them. But did you know that elephants use their ears to cool off? In hot weather, an elephant will wave its ears gently, like a fan. The huge surface area of each ear is effective to cool off the entire animal.

And question two is just how long is an elephant’s trunk? Well, they’re not all the same. They average 6-7 feet (2 m). No wonder they can pick up logs.

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