How did the Elephant get its Trunk?

It took millennia to find out. 

Elephant presented to Henry III by Louis IX of France, 1255. From the Liber additamentorum by Matthew Paris © British Library Board/Bridgeman Images.

‘In the High and Far off Times, the Elephant … had no trunk,’ wrote Rudyard Kipling. ‘He had just a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side.’ But there was one elephant’s child who was more curious than the rest. He wanted to know what the crocodile had for dinner. Since no one would tell him, he went down to the banks of the Limpopo to find out for himself. When he bent down to see, the crocodile bit his nose – and pulled until it was ‘nearly five feet long’. That, Kipling smiled, was how the elephant got its trunk. It’s a silly story, of course; but like all good tales, it contains a kernel of truth – or rather, the husk of a puzzle. 

Hands, knees and snorkels

By the time Kipling’s Just So Stories appeared in 1902 the elephant’s trunk had already fascinated Europeans for millennia. Though native to Africa and parts of southern Asia, elephants had been known in Europe from an early date. At first, contact was probably made through trade. A fleeting reference in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles suggests that ivory was a valued commodity in the eighth century BC, transported to Greece – in all likelihood – in the hulls of Phoenician ships. Later, war played a greater role. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great encountered Persian ‘war elephants’ for the first time at the Battle of Gaugamela; the next century, Hannibal crossed the Alps with 37 elephants; and in 81 BC Pompey tried to enter Rome in triumph on a chariot pulled by four of them.

Utterly different to any other animal, in both size and shape, elephants captivated the classical and post-classical imagination. Yet because they were seen in Europe only infrequently, descriptions of them tended to be informed as much by imagination as by experience. The more time went on, the wilder the stories about their appearance and habits became. According to Oppian, for example, elephants were ‘infinite in size’; Pliny the Elder claimed they were prone to ‘flatulence’; Cassidorus was convinced they worshipped God, yet also insisted that they had no knees; and Isidore of Seville suggested they gave birth in water or on an island so as to prevent dragons from killing their offspring. 

But it was the elephant’s trunk which aroused the greatest interest – and the most bemusement. While everyone agreed that it was probably a nose of some sort, no one was sure why it was so long. 

Attempts to answer this question tended to focus on the trunk’s perceived use(s). In De partibus animalium, Aristotle argued that ‘animals have the parts they have in order to be able to perform the functions for which [those parts] are designed’. Put more simply: if a creature (say, a giraffe) had a distinctive appendage (a long neck), which it used for a specific task (eating leaves from high branches), then it was reasonable to suppose that the appendage was intended only for that purpose. Reversing the logic, this meant that, if you could find out what function the elephant’s trunk served, you should be able to guess why it had to be so big. 

 Rudyard Kipling’s illustration of the elephant’s child for his Just So Stories, 1902.
 Rudyard Kipling’s illustration of the elephant’s child for his Just So Stories, 1902 © British Library Board/Bridgeman Images.

The obvious answer was that it was used for smelling. But if it was just an olfactory organ, there would be no need for it to be any bigger than ours. This suggested that its true function was something else. But what? Opinion was divided. Aristotle thought that it was a kind of snorkel. In the belief that elephants only ate food found deep underwater and were too heavy to surface very often, he suggested that they needed long trunks to breathe. For St Ambrose, by contrast, it compensated for the elephant’s enormous size and supposed lack of knees. ‘[S]ince it is taller than every other animal’, he explained in the Hexameron, ‘it cannot bend down to feed. Therefore, it makes use of its trunk both to gather its food and to pour copious draughts of water down its throat.’

Vacuum cleaners

These explanations had the same problem. The methodology was too teleological and their materials too fantastical. In the centuries that followed, as polities fragmented and the Mediterranean was rent by religious divides, things only went downhill. 

In the Near East, elephants remained a familiar part of the faunal landscape, due in part to the emergence of Islam and the extension of Muslim rule throughout North Africa and Mesopotamia. In AD 570, the Christian king of Ethiopia attacked Mecca with elephants; in the mid-tenth century, al Tanukhi wrote a story about a traveller who swore never to eat elephant meat; and when, in 1401, the elephant Marzuq drowned in Cairo, his death was commemorated in an elegy. 

In Europe elephants were seen less frequently. Though ivory continued to be traded, they were notable mainly by their absence. On the rare occasions when elephants did make an appearance, it was generally in the guise of an exotic gift given by one potentate to another: such as that sent to Charlemagne by Haroun al-Rashid in 801, or to Henry III of England by Louis IX of France in 1255. 

Despite this absence, pictorial representations of elephants became more common, especially from the mid-13th century onwards. The quality was variable. Some were downright strange. At times they were shown with long hair, squat legs and huge, bug eyes. But other depictions were reasonably accurate. Though trunks still looked quite a lot like flared vacuum hoses, they were drawn with more care than whimsy. In one manuscript, showing Henry III’s elephant, the trunk has even been drawn twice. 

But at the same time, descriptions regressed. With only rare exceptions, such as Matthew Paris, most authors tended simply to reheat classical chestnuts, seasoned with a little make-believe of their own. Bede repeated the story of the elephant’s rivalry with dragons, while a 13th-century English bestiary argued that elephants breed only in the Garden of Eden. Trunks suffered most. Partly because the bestiaries in which such descriptions are found were compendious rather than analytical, little effort was made to investigate why they were so long. Even Aristotle’s flawed method was shunned. Albertus Magnus was typical. Though a noted scholar, he merely observed that the trunk was used to convey food to the mouth, and left it at that. 

Muddy waters

The arrival of Hanno, a white Indian elephant, in Rome in March 1513 marked a turning point – of sorts. A gift from King Manuel of Portugal to the newly elected Pope Leo X, Hanno was the first elephant to be seen in the Eternal City since antiquity – and caused a sensation. As he was led through the streets, crowds flocked to catch a glimpse. His fame was sealed when he reached Castel Sant’Angelo, where the pope was waiting. After kneeling in homage, he trumpeted loudly and sprayed the pontiff with water from a bucket – much to Leo’s delight. 

Duly installed in a specially built enclosure next to St Peter’s Square, Hanno helped spark a new approach to elephants and their trunks. In a sense, he had come at the right time. Since the days of Henry III’s pachyderm, attitudes towards the classics had begun to change. Though the recovery and emulation of antique texts became a preoccupation, those same texts were now read with a more critical eye. 

In the visual arts, classicising tendencies were tempered by a desire to imitate nature. Almost at once, Hanno was seized upon as a model of what an elephant should look like. Detailed sketches were drawn by Raphael and Giulio Romano; a bas-relief was produced by Giovanni da Udine; and everywhere, Hanno’s trunk was rendered with almost perfect fidelity. 

The Battle of Zama, 202 BC, in which the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s Carthaginian army. Studio of Giulio Romano, 16th century.
The Battle of Zama, 202 BC, in which the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s Carthaginian army. Studio of Giulio Romano, 16th century © Bridgeman Images.

In the natural sciences, progress was less marked, however. Aristotle’s teleological approach was revived; but, though emphasis was placed on observation, it was used to complement – rather than challenge – earlier explanations for the length of the elephant’s trunk. Conrad Gessner, for example, accepted that form was determined by function and differed from classical auctores only in his willingness to believe that several functions might have been at play. This only muddied waters further. If the trunk was used for snorkelling, sniffing and slurping, did all three functions require the same nose-length? Or was one more important than another? 

Watches and crocodiles

The revival of Aristotelian teleology had one important implication. If elephants’ trunks needed to be long in order to perform the function for which they were designed, it followed that someone – or something – must have been doing the designing. The question was: who (or what)? 

The most obvious answer was God. Although, in previous centuries, zoological discussions had been grounded on the assumption that divine providence was made manifest in nature, the growing stress on empirical observation fostered the belief that the natural world was governed by universal laws laid down by a more deliberate and intelligent creator. As the English theologian William Paley put it, nature was like a watch. Once God set it in motion, it operated according to pre-ordained rules. As Isaac Newton pointed out, the mechanism might need tweaking from time to time; but, generally speaking, it ran much as it was meant to. From this point of view, elephants’ trunks were long because they were a cog in the mechanism laid down by the ‘watchmaker’ in the sky. Just like Aristotle’s argument, however, it raised more questions than answers. 

There was another possibility. In the mid-18th century, the Comte de Buffon speculated that the ‘designer’ might be Nature itself. Observing that the population of a species would grow exponentially unless restrained by predation, Buffon postulated that Nature gave each animal precisely those characteristics needed for it to survive the ongoing struggle for existence. The elephant’s trunk was a case in point. Praising it as the ‘most admirable’ instrument Nature had ever granted an animal, Buffon argued that its length and ability to perform several functions at once (smell, touch, respiration, etc.) fostered intellect and memory – which, taken together, gave the lumbering elephant an edge over its predators. 

Buffon rejected the notion that species were capable of changing over time; but the connection he drew between competition and physical characteristics nevertheless suggested that the advantage delivered by certain attributes might favour the survival of a particular variant across the years. How this worked was, however, unclear. 

An early solution was proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In Philosophie zoologique (1809) he argued that animals could acquire characteristics through use and then pass them on to their descendants. A version of this idea is found in Kipling’s story. Having had its nose stretched by the crocodile, the theory went, the young elephant should be able to pass its super-sized schnozz on to its own children. A crocodile wasn’t essential, of course. If an elephant simply tried to extend its nose a bit further to reach its favourite leaves higher on the tree, Lamarck believed, the result would be the same. 

The flaws were obvious to see. Only with the appearance of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was a more compelling explanation offered. In contrast to Lamarck, Darwin argued that, in any given population, a certain amount of variation would occur naturally and that those individuals with characteristics best suited to their circumstances would be most likely to survive and reproduce. Over time, this process of ‘natural selection’ would favour the evolution of particular traits. In the elephants’ case, trunks were hence best understood as a response to specific environmental factors. 

What these factors were was not definitively established until recently. According to a study published in 2015, the length of the elephant’s trunk is proportional to the amount of food it can cram in its mouth, and most likely evolved in response to the declining nutritional content of the leaves on which it feeds. 

And that is how the elephant got its trunk. All that remains is to ask: what did the crocodile eat for its dinner?

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Machiavelli: His Life and Times (Picador, 2020).