Photograph by Richard du Toit, Minden Pictures, National Geographic
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An African elephant sniffs with its trunk in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

Photograph by Richard du Toit, Minden Pictures, National Geographic

How Do Elephants and Other Animals Sneeze?

A long trunk can make for an especially explosive event. Whales, iguanas, and even fish also have unique methods of sneezing.


Sneezing can be pretty darn cute—take the sneezing baby panda, which got a whopping 217 million views on YouTube. So for Saturday's Weird Animal Question of the Week, we couldn't resist answering Angel Rios, who asked via Facebook: "Do elephants sneeze? How?"

Elephant trunks are incredible multitaskers, used for smelling, touching, carrying, breathing—and yes, sneezing.

"Indeed, elephants sneeze through their trunks as it is still their nose," John Lenhardt, of the National Elephant Center, an elephant sanctuary in Florida, says via email. (Watch: "Anatomy of an Elephant Trunk.")

"It can be very loud, as you might imagine, and is usually accompanied by a significant spray also. It is normal, but just elephant-sized."

Explosive Events

Mammal coughs and sneezes come from throat and nasal passages, respectively, says Bill Milsom, a comparative physiologist at the University of British Columbia.

In elephants, those passages run all the way up the length of the trunk.

Both are "explosive events requiring the expulsion of air from the lungs—designed to clear the source of irritation," he says.

In the case of the trunk of the elephant or the nose of a human, foreign objects causing irritation could enter from either end"—from an external irritant or from the opening at the back of the throat.

"We've all at one time or another had that uncomfortable reaction to aspirating something back up into the nasal passages." (Read more about the anatomy of a human sneeze.)

Mammals, he says, are the only animals that process food in the mouth by chewing. In other types of animals, like reptiles, "food is swallowed whole or by chewing, and breathing is suspended during the event."

Other Natural Sneezers

Terrestrial animals aren't the only ones who get the urge to achoo sometimes.

Marine iguanas eject salt through their nasal glands with a sneeze. And whales and dolphins have to "breathe out and blow the water out before they can breathe in" through their blowhole, fulfilling the same function as a sneeze, says Milsom.

"Even fish cough or sneeze to clear particulate matter in the water that 'clogs' the gills."

Insects, however, probably aren't part of the club, Allen Gibbs, an insect physiologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says via email. The invertebrates can push air around their respiratory system, but it's unknown whether they engage in what we'd call a sneeze.

Too bad—we've always wanted to say "bless you" to a bug.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.