Suck it

Watch: Elephants suck up food like vacuums

They inhale at 30 times the speed of a sneeze.

Elephants use their impressive trunks for many purposes, including picking up objects, drinking and spraying water, and loudly blowing air to communicate with other animals.


But on Tuesday, scientists published findings in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface suggesting another fascinating use for elephant trunks — which function almost like vacuum cleaners.


Georgia Institute of Technology scientists discovered elephants dilate, or expand, their nostrils. This gives them more breathing room — literally — allowing them to quickly suck up water or food.

Credit: David Hu

“We filmed elephants [...] showing that they can use suction to grab food, performing a behavior that was previously thought to be restricted to fishes.”

Scientists found elephants can store up to 9 liters of water in their trunk and can chug approximately 3 liters per second.

Credit: David Hu

Courtesy of the researchers

But even more impressive: Elephants can inhale at rates that reach nearly 30 times the speed of a human sneeze.

Courtesy of the researchers

The scientists found that if they offered multiple small snacks to the elephant, the mammal used the suction power of its trunk to effectively pick them up.

But for smaller types of food, like grains, the experiment’s elephant avoided using suction to prevent the small grain from getting stuck in its trunk.

This ultrasonic video shows what happens to the elephant’s nasal wall during suction.

Courtesy of the researchers

The researchers also offered a tortilla chip to the elephant — a harder object to pick up due to its crispy, flat surface. The elephant applied the precise suction power of its trunk to pick up the tortilla chip without breaking it.

Courtesy of the research team

Elephants are unique in their abilities: They are the only creatures that can deploy suction to obtain food on both land and underwater.

Elephants also have the biggest nostrils of all the animals this team has studied, implying, they also have the best suction ability.

However, the study team suggests pigs could possibly suction up very small objects as well.

Can humans use similar suction to suck up objects with our nostrils? The researchers say yes — but only for light objects like paper.

To lift up a tortilla chip with your nostrils, your nose would have to get very close — within 0.4 millimeters — of the chip. (Maybe don’t try this at home).


While human and elephant lungs apply similar pressure, elephants have much stronger lung capacity — and therefore better suction power — than humans.

It’s possible we can harness elephants’ unique suction ability and benefit humans, the study team writes. Roboticists could use these findings to develop better machines that use suction technology.


Read more animal science stories here.

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