Background: The dorsal extension of the tip of the trunk of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), often referred to as "the finger," possesses remarkable mechanical dexterity and is used for a variety of special behaviors including grasping food and tactile and ultimately chemosensory recognition via the vomeronasal organ. The present study describes a unique sensory innervation of this specialized region of the trunk.
Methods: The tip of the dorsal aspect of the trunk is referred to as the trunk tip finger and has been studied grossly in 13 living elephants. One tip from a male Asian elephant was obtained for histologic study when it was accidentally severed. The tissue was fixed in 10% neutral buffered formalin, and portions were either sectioned frozen or embedded in paraffin and serial sectioned. Sections were stained with silver in both cases.
Results: The skin of the trunk tip finger differs from that of the surrounding areas; it contains a high density of free nerve endings, numerous convoluted branched small corpuscles, and vellus vibrissae that resemble vellus hairs, which do not protrude beyond the skin surface. The finger is thus densely innervated with three distinctive types of sensory terminals. Corpuscular receptors consist of small Pacinian corpuscles and convoluted branched simple corpuscles. Both are present in the superficial dermis. Abundant regular vibrissae are present in the skin surrounding the trunk tip finger. Short vibrissae that do not protrude from the skin surface, referred to as vellus vibrissae, are abundant in the finger tip. Both types of vibrissae are innervated by hundreds of axons resembling the mystacial vibrissae of rodents. Free nerve endings are numerous in the superficial dermis, often making intimate contact with the basal cells of rete pegs.
Conclusions: The dorsal finger of the trunk tip of Asian elephants has a unique sensory innervation that resembles aspects of sensory innervation of mystacial skin of rodents or lip tissue of monkeys. This dense sensory innervation can be correlated with the tactile ability of these animals to use the trunk finger to grasp small objects for feeding and to insert chemically active samples into the ductal orifices of the vomeronasal organ for subsequent chemosensory processing.