Why elephants need a mustache on their trunk: a new study

Scientists from Germany conducted a study that helped understand why elephants need whiskers on their trunk. Elephant whiskers were first described back in 1890, but until now it wasn’t clear why they were needed. A new study has shown that whiskers help elephants hold objects in their trunk, not to “grope” the environment.

The structure of an elephant’s mustache

Researchers studied the trunk tips of six African and eight Asian elephants that lived in zoos and either died a natural death or were put to sleep because of serious health problems. Samples were collected from 11 adult animals, one juvenile and two newborn cubs. The researchers also studied the whiskers of six-week-old male lab rats to compare the anatomy of elephant whiskers with those of other mammals.

Scientists found that elephant mustaches are markedly different from rat mustaches: they are cylindrical in shape (rats have tapered mustaches, which prevents them from getting stuck in the surrounding objects), relatively thick and strong. And their follicles are simpler and, apparently, do not allow the elephant’s brain to catch the fine movements of the hairs. We also found interspecific differences in the number of whiskers: adult African elephants had, on average, 1.7 times more whiskers than Asian elephants.

Why elephants need whiskers on their trunk

Even during complex movements of the trunk, the whiskers remained motionless, and the authors of the study believe that elephants need whiskers not for “groping,” but to avoid dropping and damaging the objects held in the trunk. The presence of sensitive hairs makes it possible to understand exactly how hard to squeeze something with the trunk. This is important because elephants often hold plant food, which tends to change shape when squeezed.

Interspecies differences in whiskers

Scientists speculate that interspecies differences in mustaches can be explained by differences in the feeding habits of African and Asian elephants. In South Asia, they feed mostly on grasses that don’t require subtle proboscis movements to grasp, but in Africa, these animals are more likely to snip branches from trees and shrubs, which means they need to better hold small objects in their proboscis.

Study conclusions

Thus, the new study helped to understand why elephants need whiskers on their trunks. Whiskers help elephants hold objects in their trunk, not to “feel” their environment. Interspecies differences in whiskers can be explained by differences in nutrition between African and Asian elephants. These animals use their trunks to grasp different foods, and the whiskers help them with this task.

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