How Far Can an Elephant Smell Water?

By Rob Harris

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An elephant's trunk is good for more than bringing food to his mouth and squirting water over his back -- it's well designed to work as a nose. Elephants have keen smelling abilities, sensing water from several miles away. They also use their smelling abilities to warn them of dangers and help them recognize other elephants across great distances.

Importance of Water

Elephants use water in many ways. They need it to stay hydrated, drinking between 18 to 55 gallons per day, depending on their size. According to SeaWorld, an adult male elephant only needs five minutes to guzzle down his daily water quota. But drinking is only half the fun. Elephants like to walk down into the water to cool off and bathe, using their trunks to squirt water over their backs like a shower.

Smelling Water

Elephants' keen sense of smell helps them find water up to 12 miles away, SeaWorld reports. They often wave their trunks in the air, gathering scent particles that give them not only the smell of water, but which direction and about how far away it is. Their trunks also smell potential dangers, helping them decide between bodies of water if they detect more than one.

How Their Noses Work

A trunk is a complicated appendage. The tip is sensitive, working almost like fingers to help elephants eat. The flexible trunk shaft lets elephants shorten or lengthen their trunks and move them in all directions. But the unique makeup of an elephant's trunk is what gives him the amazing ability to smell water several miles away. His three nostrils breathe in the scent particles, which them pass through seven olfactory turbinals filled with millions of receptor cells. These sensitive cells differentiate between scents instantaneously, even from far away. For more powerful scent collection close-up, an elephant will touch something with the tip of his trunk, such as the urine of another elephant, and bring that into his mouth to pass it to his Jacobson's organ. This is a specialized organ in the top of his mouth that's attached to his nasal cavity, and it's used most often by male elephants trying to find a date.

Other Keen Senses

Elephants have hearing abilities that are almost as good as their smelling skills, which makes sense if you think about the size of their ears. They can hear lower frequencies than humans can, and they use these frequencies, called infrasonic sounds, to talk to other elephants more than a half a mile away. They flap their ears to help funnel sounds into their ear canals, helping them catch the smallest signs of movement nearby. They also have special cells in their trunks and feet called Pacinian corpuscles that help them feel vibrations in the ground, including seismic activity and the vibrations created by other elephants.

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