This article is from
Creation 34(3):16–19, July 2012

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Designer trunks

Inspired by the design of the elephant’s trunk, engineers have tried to copy it


©bigstockphoto.com/dzain Elephant

Conventional robotic arms with their metal skeletal bars and lots of tubes are very cleverly designed, but it’s not advisable to get too close. As engineers have wryly noted, “Compliance is not a feature of traditional robotic assistants. This presents danger of injury and/or performance error.”1

So, wanting to come up with a new design of robotic arm that would be safer to operate around people, engineers turned for inspiration to the elephant’s trunk. They were attracted by the fact that its trunk provides the elephant with “an appendage that is flexible, capable of transmitting large forces, precise, delicate and highly compliant.”1

They’re certainly right about that. The elephant’s trunk can indeed perform tasks needing strength, such as picking up heavy logs, or ripping off branches from a tree. And its muscular tip equips the trunk for tasks requiring delicacy, being sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass. (Circus elephants can pick up a pin, and uncork a bottle.)

Credit: AP robot-trunk

So the researchers set out to construct a copy of the elephant’s trunk according to “norms from the field of biomimicry, which means that it imitates the real-life organ after [which] it is inspired as closely as possible, in design as well as engineering aesthetic.”2

But the researchers “hit a snag”2 when they found out that elephants move their trunks via interactions of about 40,000 muscles. Current technologies would not permit such a level of replication.

Nevertheless, making do with available materials and technology, the team of engineers at the German automation company Festo have now announced their ‘Bionic Handling Assistant’ (BHA).1 The BHA contains no steel or iron, but instead its structural material is a polyamide, which is a durable, flexible category of materials that includes nylon, silk and Kevlar.

It mimics the movement of an elephant’s trunk by means of the sequential inflation and deflation of very small air bladders lining the interior of the robotic arm. Inflating the bladders on one side of the BHA ‘trunk’ bends it in the opposite direction. The bladders are divided into three sections to allow for “S-curve-like dexterity”.3

The robotic arm ends in a final fourth section just prior to Festo’s three-pronged ‘FinGripper’, an instrument designed to allow the BHA to grab hold of objects.

Sensors along the robotic arm act as collision detectors, telling it to stop if it bumps into something, such as a person or a piece of furniture. The Festo company says the BHA is safe to operate in tight quarters that are off-limits to traditional metal hydraulic mechanical assistants, e.g. in schools and hospital settings.

A trunk by design, a trunk by accident?

Surely anybody shown the BHA ‘trunk’, and seeing its obvious inherent design, would conclude it must have had a designer. And as that design is as yet inferior to the trunk it seeks to copy, doesn’t that send a strong message to us about the genesis of the elephantine original, in line with Romans 1:20 in the Bible? 4 Yet many do deny the source of the superior design of the elephant’s trunk. They instead claim that a biomimicry engineer “draws inspiration from the biomechanical systems that the process of evolution has honed for millions of years, often resulting in startling insights over man-made artificial solutions.”3

So, the ‘process of evolution’ (mutations and natural selection) is supposed to have turned pond scum into pachyderms.5 However, none of the multiplicity of uphill changes needed for that transition are observed today. Accidental mutations visibly result in degeneration, not the generation or ‘honing’ of beautifully functional appendages like the elephant’s trunk. And natural selection can only favour existing genetic information, not create anything new. Ah, but the strategic key to the naturalism paradigm of origins is the ‘millions of years’. Evolutionists say that the changes happened over time, when we weren’t around to observe them. Thus the front end of a mouse-like creature is reported to have become a fully-functional elephant’s trunk in 24 million generations.6 And its functionality was accidental, as, by definition, ‘evolution’ wielded its ultimate design magic with no goal in mind.

©iStockphoto.com/T-Immagini trunk-banana

Divine design makes much more sense. Just as the Festo engineers designed their metal-free robotic arm with a purpose in mind, i.e. to be fully-functional from the outset, so too did the Designer of the elephant’s trunk. And He purposefully equipped it to be a multi-function appendage. Not only is it used as a grasping organ, i.e. to tear off herbage from high or low plants and pass it into the elephant’s mouth, but also for drinking. Elephants suck water up into their trunk—up to 14 litres (12 quarts) at a time—then blow it into their mouths, or spray it onto their bodies when bathing. What’s more, elephants can even use their uplifted trunks as snorkels (see box), while swimming as much as two metres (7 feet) underwater.

Elephants also use their trunk to touch one another, not just in mother-child interactions but also adults entwine their trunks by way of greeting (the equivalent of our handshake, it seems), and use them to caress each other during courtship.

As a nose, the elephant’s trunk provides it with a terrifically sensitive sense of smell. By raising the trunk in the air and turning it from side to side, like a periscope, the elephant can detect even a snake in the grass hundreds of metres away. When riverbeds are dry, the elephant uses its trunk to locate water, digging pits up to three metres (ten feet) deep with the appendage, and sucking up the moisture that oozes into the pit.7

Elephants can use their trunks, which are sensitive to vibrations, to ‘hear’ as well—they have been observed listening by putting their trunks on the ground, thus enabling them to detect elephant movement and communications from long distances away. They communicate using their trunks by making various noises e.g. forcefully expelling air through the trunk to make a loud blasting ‘trumpet’8 when charging at a hyena,9 versus the more common low-frequency ‘rumble’ signal to other elephants.10 They use it to send visual signals, too—a raised trunk can be a warning or threat, while a lowered trunk can be a sign of submission.

However, evolutionists show no sign of submitting to the key visual signal from the elephant’s trunk—that its design means there is a Designer. Hence, for the mice-became-elephants-by-evolutionary-accident brigade, there’ll no doubt be plenty more ‘startling insights’ in store from design in nature yet.

Snorkel Snags (for evolution and its timeline)

©iStockphoto.com/SoopySue elephant-swimming

Crucial to the elephant’s amazing underwater-snorkelling prowess is the fact that its lungs are “unique among mammals”.11

Other mammals have a fluid-filled pleural cavity between their lungs and chest wall. But if elephants had this, the higher pressure from the surrounding water compared to the air pressure inside the lungs (which is open to atmospheric pressure via the elephant’s trunk ‘snorkel’) could burst small blood vessels in the pleural membrane, proving fatal. (At two metres depth, the pressure gradient would be too steep, i.e. about 20%.)

The elephant’s anatomical features in question here make complete sense from a biblical perspective—God designed elephants to equip them for snorkelling.

But from an evolutionary perspective, land mammals are said to have evolved from some common ancestral line that somehow moved from its evolutionary roots in the water to a terrestrial existence. Why then are elephants so different, with their unique lungs nicely complementing their snorkel endowment?

Some evolutionists are therefore proposing that elephants, which they say are closely related to manatees and dugongs, evolved from aquatic creatures. They say this “fits neatly with the idea that elephants were once water babies.”

But this adds an additional snag to an already over-compressed timeframe, because then the evolutionary path would be sea creature (fish) → land mammal → back to the sea (proposed ancestor of elephants and dugongs) → back to land (elephants).


The evidence points to elephants having always been elephants, designed complete with their amazingly versatile, fully-functional trunks from the very first, and created to reproduce “according to their kind”, just as the Bible says (Genesis 1:24–25). It really should not be that startling to anyone.

Posted on homepage: 28 September 2013

References and notes

  1. Festo AG & C., Bionic handling assistant: Human-technology cooperation with a compliant robotic assistant, www.asknature.org, 29 January 2012. Return to text.
  2. Vieru, T., Elephant trunks inspire advanced robotic arm, news.softpedia.com, 25 November 2010. Return to text.
  3. Hadhazy, A., Ribbed robotic arm bends like an elephant’s trunk, www.livescience.com, 24 November 2010. Return to text.
  4. Romans 1:20 (ESV) says: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Return to text.
  5. The term ‘pachyderm’ refers to any of the various large, thick-skinned, hoofed mammals such as the elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus. Return to text.
  6. Monash University media release: Mouse to elephant in 24 million generations, www.monash.edu.au, 31 January 2012. Return to text.
  7. Weston, P., Heard of elephants? Creation 21(4):28–32, 1999; creation.com/elephant2. Return to text.
  8. “Note that it is quite easy to imitate elephant trumpet calls with a trombone!”—Gilbert, J., Dalmont, J.-P. and Potier, R., Does the elephant trumpet like a trumpet? Proceedings of the 20th International Congress on Acoustics, 23–27 August 2010, Sydney, Australia, www.acoustics.asn.au. Return to text.
  9. Elephants intimidate predators by rushing at them with a trumpet blast, elephantvoices.wildlifedirect.org, 6 June 2008. Return to text.
  10. Elephants ready to rumble at sound of bees, physorg.com, 26 April 2010. Return to text.
  11. Coukell, A., Dumbo goes diving, New Scientist 171(2307):17, 8 September 2001. (Also: Mumbo jumbo, Creation 24(1):7, 2001). Return to text.

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