A nose with two nostrils is a trait shared by almost all animals, and for good reason. The nose gives us an additional sense through its ability to smell, but it also serves as a critical pathway that allows air to flow into the lungs. But while most animals use their noses exclusively for those two purposes, there are quite a few who have developed far more elongated appendages. As is usually the case with evolutionary changes, these long noses tend to serve a purpose. Here are seven of the animals with the biggest noses — along with why they developed them in the first place.
#7: Elephant Shrew — Nose as Meal Forager
Big noses are often a way to compensate for poor senses elsewhere, but that’s not the case with the elephant shrew. This tiny mammal has exceptional sight and hearing in addition to its strong sense of smell. Their long noses may look like a shrunk-down version of the trunk elephants carry, but it’s not quite so flexible. Instead, they use their noses similarly to aardvarks — sweeping the ground to unsettle insects and small invertebrates and then ingesting them. It’s an effective technique, one that’s allowed them to spread prolifically throughout Africa.
These animals serve a critical role in their ecosystem by managing the populations of native bugs. They can be trusted to manage the populations of both ants and termites where they’re prevalent. They also use their big noses to track the scents of one another — and marking territory with scent glands is a common social habit of these monogamous and territorial pipsqueaks.
#6: Aardvark — Nose as a Foraging Tool
Despite looking remarkably similar to the anteater, the aardvark is more closely related to the elephant. And while these creatures can’t use their long snouts to craft tools and wield weapons, they can use them to hunt. An aardvark will use its claws to root up the nests of termites and ants and then use its long nose to suck up these insects in prodigious numbers. An aardvark can eat up to 50,000 insects in a single evening, and they inhale them without chewing. Aardvarks are nocturnal scavengers with poor vision, so they rely on their nose as their central form of navigation. Ten bones within the nose create a sense of smell that dwarfs any dog breed.
The aardvark shows how a dramatic evolution can develop to fulfill a very specific niche within an ecosystem. Through the patient course of evolution, aardvarks have developed the ability to block their nostrils entirely and thus prevent them from getting clogged with insects and dust.
#5: Star-Nosed Mole — Nose as a Navigation Aid
While many animals use their sense of smell to navigate in dark environments, none do so in quite the same way as the star-nosed mole. Its face is covered by a writhing mass of tentacles. The 22 tentacles that surround its nose contain roughly 100,000 nerve endings — more than five times that of the human hand. That’s quite the feat when you consider these moles measure less than half a foot in length. In the dark tunnels and shallow waters where this mole navigates, sight is far from essential — and the star-nosed mole has developed a unique method for seeing the world around it.
Their big nose tentacles all move in unison, and each can touch up to ten objects in a second. It’s hard to imagine what this practically supernaturally enhanced sense of touch must feel like, but it allows them to effectively map out their subterranean environments and both identify and assess prey like worms and insects in a matter of milliseconds. This sensory input is completely distinct from their actual olfactory capabilities — although they possess the capacity to smell underwater.
#4: Probosci’s Monkey — Nose as Built-in Amplifier
Often a long nose exists to help navigate a dark world or find a meal, but sometimes it’s built to attract a mate. Proboscis monkeys are known for their enormous and bulbous noses, but males possess much larger noses — and the males with the largest noses tend to have the best success with the opposite sex. While these noses don’t serve any functional purpose outside of the mating process, they’re an example of how seemingly innocuous traits can lead to specific sexual selection preferences in a species.
In this case, it’s due to several intersecting factors. Male proboscis monkeys maintain harems of females, and success — at least in an evolutionary sense — is predicated on having as large a harem as possible. Roughly a half foot long on average, these noses can project the mating call of a male monkey to reach a larger group of females — but large noses also tend to correspond to larger bodies, suggesting a male who can chase off both threats and competitors. Researchers have even correlated a big nose to a proportionately small set of canines — a trait that they say improves their efficiency as foragers.
#3: Tapirs — Nose as Grocery Grabber
The long nose of a tapir resembles the trunk of an elephant, and the similarities go beyond just looks. This animal’s noses are prehensile, allowing them to navigate objects in their environment in rather sophisticated ways. As with the elephant, this trunk encompasses both the upper lip and the nose of the tapir. Different species of tapir can be found throughout the jungles, grasslands, and even some mountainous regions of Central and South America, and all of them primarily use this extended snout for pulling vegetation and fruits from branches that are otherwise out of reach.
Unlike the aardvark, tapirs aren’t reliant on their noses as a replacement for being nearly blind. While they don’t have the best eyesight in the animal kingdom, these animals can navigate decently well with eyesight and better with hearing. But their trunks do help amplify their sense of smell. By peeling their prehensile trunk back and away from their mouth and exposing their teeth, they can activate what’s known as the Flehmen response, alerting themselves to everything from food sources to threats to prospective mates.
#2: Sawfish — Nose as All-Purpose Hunting Tool
The sawfish doesn’t just have a big nose — this animal has a big nose that’s shaped suspiciously like a chainsaw. And while their noses can’t be revved up, they are an effective tool for hunting. Scientists have long observed the sawfish using their uniquely large noses to sift through sand and find crustaceans to munch on. But more recent revelations have made it clear that they also weaponize their noses to kill prey. And sifting through loose sand isn’t the only way their nose can be used in the hunt. Tiny sensors are embedded throughout the surface of this fish’s nose, and they allow it to identify the electric fields that living organisms give off.
Sawfish don’t attack humans, but that seems less reassuring when you take into consideration the fact that these fish can grow to be up to 25 feet long.
#1: Elephant — Nose as All-Purpose Tool
It was once accepted that humans were the only animals capable of using tools, but elephants disprove that theory with the creative and varied ways that they manipulate their flexible noses. An elephant’s trunk can extend up to seven feet and weigh up to 400 pounds, and it’s developed from the fusion of its nose and lip. Elephants have been seen holding branches with their trunks and using them to swat away flies and scratch at itches on their leathery hides. And in a sign of higher intelligence, they even use their trunks to strip the branches and transform them into more effective tools.
But in addition to carrying and throwing objects in the environment, the trunk can serve as a remarkably delicate touch organ as well. Trunks are used to touch and caress other elephants in shows of affection, and they use these trunks to understand the texture, shape, and weight of objects around them. Elephants, such as the Indian elephant and Asian elephant, have even been seen placing their trunks to the ground to sense vibrations from afar.