September 28, 2021

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If You Could Have Any Animal Feature, What Would It Be?

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What do you know about elephants and their trunks?

Watch the nine-second video embedded above of Kelly, a 34-year-old female African elephant at the Zoo Atlanta, using suction to grab a tortilla chip.

Impressed? Does it make you wish you had a trunk?

In “Elephant Trunks: Is There Anything They Can’t Do?” Richard Sima writes about a new study about the power and wonders of an elephant’s most defining appendage:

An elephant’s trunk is a marvel of biology. Devoid of any joints or bone, the trunk is an appendage made of pure muscle that is capable of both uprooting trees and gingerly plucking individual leaves and also boasts a sense of smell more powerful than a bomb-sniffing dog’s.

Elephants use their trunks in a variety of ways. They use it to drink, store and spray water, and they also blow air through it to communicate — their 110-decibel bellows can be heard for miles.

“It’s like a muscular multitool,” said Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In a study published Wednesday in The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Mr. Schulz and his colleagues reported on how elephants can use their trunks for yet another function: applying suction to grab food, a behavior previously thought to be exclusive to fishes.

Despite the ubiquity of elephants in children’s books and nature documentaries, there are numerous gaps in scientific knowledge about the biomechanics of their trunks that the new study helps fill. For example, the most recent detailed account of elephant trunk anatomy is a hand-drawn monograph that was published in 1908, Mr. Schulz said.

Contrary to popular belief, the trunk does not act like a straw.

“What they do is actually drink water into their trunk and they store it,” Mr. Schulz said. “So the elephant trunk is actually like a trunk.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • If you could have any feature of any animal — at least for a day — what would it be and why? Eight arms like an octopus? Gills to allow you to breathe underwater? Bat ears for echolocation in the dark? The ability to change color and camouflage like chameleons?

  • What’s your reaction to the article and the videos featured in it? Do you agree with Mr. Sima that “an elephant’s trunk is a marvel of biology”? What aspect of the animal’s versatile and superstrong trunk most fascinates you?

  • The author says that much about elephants and their trunks is still unknown. What animal feature would you like scientists to research further and why?

  • What animal are you most like? Do you think that you resemble any particular animal, either in personality, behavior, characteristics or even looks? What qualities do you possess that you think animals might want to trade with you?

Learn more about Student Opinion here and find all of our questions in this column. Teachers, see how you can incorporate this feature into your classroom routine here.

Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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