Elephant Brains Help Unriddle Mystery of Trunk Dexterity

new study examines facial neurons of african, asian elephants

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Elephants’ high amount of facial neurons enable their trunk movement. They have more facial neurons than any other land mammal. African elephants significantly impact their local ecosystem.

Herd of elephants in african savanna at sunset
The two species of African elephants, the savanna elephant and the forest elephant, face a continued poaching threat. Photo by Dmitry Pichugin / Shutterstock

Elephants have an incredible amount of facial neurons, which dictate the movement of facial muscles—including their trunks. The trunks themselves have in excess of 40,000 muscles and scientists have long struggled to understand how the massive herbivores manage the trunks’ dexterity of motion.

Scientists’ recent acquisition of the brains of elephants who died of natural causes or were euthanized for health reasons has led to a potentially landmark study published in the journal Science Advances that could help dispel the mystery.

Elephants have long been a popular animal for children and adults alike. In his video series The Great Tours: African Safari, James Currie, safari guide and author, explores the world of the African elephant.

Giants under Threat

“Most people don’t know that there are two species of African elephant: the savanna elephant, which is the much more abundant and commonly seen giant of the plains, and the significantly smaller forest elephant,” Currie said. “The jungles of equatorial Africa are the only remaining habitat of the forest elephant, and just like their savanna cousins, they face an unrelenting poaching threat.”

Savanna elephants have curved tusks, while forest elephants’ tusks are straighter and point more downward. According to Currie, they’re essentially extended incisor teeth.

Even in the 21st century, these tusks remain a vital component in the ivory industry, an international market for trinkets like jewelry and carved miniatures. Many countries have banned the buying and selling of elephant ivory, but the practice continues.

Six-Ton Movers and Shakers

Elephants are very powerful creatures that play a critical role in their ecosystem.

“Savanna bull elephants generally weigh up to 6 tons and stand up to 13 feet tall at the shoulder,” Currie said. “The gardeners of the African bush, they continuously feed on plant matter from grasses to fruit and everything in between, constantly pruning the vegetation and even providing food for animals like baboons feeding in their wake.”

Elephants often strip the outer bark from trees and eat the inner layer. Other times, they push trees over—or uproot them with their trunks—to reach both their high green leaves and the deep roots. These trees become new ecosystems of their own, as homes and food to insects, mammals, and reptiles that couldn’t reach them without elephantine interference.

And, of course, as they eat, they defecate, leaving undigested seeds and plant matter around the savanna. This contributes to the dispersal of seeds and helps to restore what the elephants have depleted through their dietary habits.

Mama’s Family

Both species of African elephant are herd animals that live in family groups, and may be the strongest example of a matriarchal society in the animal kingdom.

“Herds are normally led by the largest and oldest female of the herd, a role which is traditionally passed on to her eldest daughter,” Currie said. “When we see a group of elephants together, we can assume it’s made up of closely related family members.”

Herds can number up to the hundreds if they live in an area with plentiful food and water. This vastness is often seen in places like Chobe National Park in Botswana. On the other hand, in parts of Africa with fewer resources, such as the Namib Desert, herd size shrinks down to as few as 10 members.

“Family bonds between these terrestrial giants are incredibly strong; each calf is nurtured and reared by all females of the group after gestating almost two years in the womb,” Currie said. “A mother only gives birth again after about four years; so, numbers are not easily replaced, and each baby born is treasured and treated as a family investment.”

The Great Tours: African Safari is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily