Pop quiz: How is an elephant like a ROOMBAH??

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Slurp! Like your beloved house-hold appliance, elephants also use suction to grab onto food – even the tiniest peanut! 

Andrew Schultz from Georgia Institute of Technology and colleagues wondered – with those big trunks, how do they handle such tiny morsels? 

The team filmed one female African elephant at Zoo Atlanta eating snacks — tortilla chips and rutabaga cubes! To measure suction strength, they placed these yummy treats on a force plate.  They also estimated nostril size and lung capacity. Based on these force and nostril measurements, they calculated how FAST the elephants could suck. 

Their findings? Elephants can suck with speeds up to ONE HUNDRED FIFTY meters per second. Almost THIRTY TIMES the speed of a human sneeze! These high air speeds let elephants vacuum up fragile snacks, like tortilla chips, without breaking them. 

Elephant trunks could be an inspiration to robot designers! No more fumble-fingers for robots handling small, delicate items.

Soo HOORAY – let’s add VACUUMING to the long list of elephant circus tricks!

Reference: Schulz, A.K., Ning Wu, J., Ha, S.Y.S., et al. Suction feeding by elephants. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 18:20210215 (2021).