A Blog by Ed Yong

South African wildlife – Wait, that’s not a trunk…


This is a bull elephant firmly establishing why it is he, and not the lion, who is king of beasts. The elephant’s penis is not only massive but prehensile. As we watched in baffled amusement (and the faintest tinge of inadequacy), he used his penis to prop himself up (as in the photo), swat flies from his side and scratch himself on his stomach. David Attenborough never showed us that…

There’s good reason for elephants to have prehensile penises. It’s hard enough for a six-tonne animal to get into the right position for sex, let alone having to do the rhythmic thrusting that’s required. So he let’s his penis do all the work for him.

You’ll also note the dark stain behind his eye – that’s a leak from his temporal gland. It means that this male was entering musth, the period when their testosterone shoots through the roof and they get incredibly horny and aggressive. We tried to drive round this male and he basically charged us. Tramply doom was averted by our driver who slammed his palm against the car door as hard as he could. The elephant stopped and huffed and puffed. We did our best to not soil ourselves.


This picture gives you an idea of how close he was. After a seemingly infinite standstill, he moved aside, extended his enormous penis and had a wee. It’s amazing how terror can convert into comedy so quickly…


15 thoughts on “South African wildlife – Wait, that’s not a trunk…

  1. I was once accosted on the stairs of the old geology building in Helsinki by Michael Fortelius. He pressed a paper into my hand and ran off with a smile. The paper was about testicondy in elephants – their balls don’t drop.
    The point of the paper was that because of this they have a higher mutation rate, and this might explain the high rate of diversification of the elephants, mammoths etc. in the fossil record.
    I just thought you might like to know this.

  2. Reminds me of doing research in Botswana – we used to sex the fresh dung by the pattern of urine deposited with it. In males the urine was in front of the dung (for obvious reasons), sometimes by a looong way… I can definitely confirm that being charged by a male in musth is a very scary experience, especially when you are on foot not too far away from it!

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