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 Otautahi – New research has found elephants dilate their nostrils in order to create more space in their trunks, despite weighing 100kg, allowing them to store up to nine litres of water.

They can also suck up three litres of water a second — a speed 50 times faster than a human sneeze.

The findings could inspire different ways to building robots that manipulate air to move or hold things.

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers in the US sought to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food and other objects.

They also wanted to learn if the mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use air motion to hold and move things.

The researchers found that elephants are the only animals able to use suction on land and underwater. Their trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary.

The Georgia Tech team worked with vets at Zoo Atlanta, studying elephants as they ate various foods.

By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time the durations and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked up 3.7 litres, the equivalent of 20 toilets flushing simultaneously.

An elephant’s nasal passage is relatively small and researchers saw ultra-sonographic images and watched the nostrils expand. Air makes the walls open, and the animal can store far more water than the researchers originally estimated.

Based on the pressures applied, the researchers suggested elephants inhale at speeds that are comparable to Japan’s 480kmh bullet trains.