Representatives of the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke about how the skin plays an important role in giving flexibility to the trunk of an elephant. Researchers have found that the skin on an elephant’s trunk stretches unevenly.
“When people stretch out their tongue – a muscle-filled boneless tissue similar in composition to an elephant’s trunk – it stretches evenly. We expected the same thing when we asked the elephant to reach for food. But when we looked at the footage from our high-speed camera and plotted the movement of the trunk, we were surprised. The top and bottom were not the same at all,” said study leader Andrew Schultz.
When an elephant reaches out to reach for food or other objects, the folds of skin on the dorsal surface are more tensile than the wrinkled skin on the ventral side, allowing the trunk to elongate further.
“Flexible skin folds protect the dorsal area and make it easier for the elephant to reach down, which is the most common gripping technique when picking up objects.”
In addition to a better understanding of elephants, Schultz sees the application of the knowledge gained in the field of soft robotics.
“Soft robotics based on biological design is always based on the movement of muscles. If they were covered with protective skin, like an elephant’s trunk filled with muscles, the machines could exert great force,” says Schultz. “Last year we learned that the trunk is a multi-purpose muscular hydrostat. Now we know that the skin is another tool at its disposal.”