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What Is a Proboscis?

An elephant with a long proboscis.
Aardvarks, which are vertebrates that possess the proboscis, are found across most of central and southern Africa.
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  • Written By: Andy Josiah
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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The term proboscis refers to the nose of an animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, that is long and elongated. The word is in Latin format, tracing its origin to the combination of two Greek words: pro and bosko. The former means “before” or “forward,” while the latter means “to feed” or “to nourish.”

In invertebrates, the proboscis is best described as a feeding and sucking organ of tubular design. For instance, the hoverfly uses its proboscis to extract the nectar of flowers. Other invertebrates with this organ include butterflies, moths, ribbon worms, snails and slugs.

When it comes to vertebrates, the proboscis is most commonly associated with the elephant trunk, which is actually a combination of that mammal’s nose and upper lip. Besides providing a sense of smell, this specialized appendage is incredibly versatile, used for a variety of tasks that include sucking up water for drinking and bathing, picking up grass, uprooting trees and interacting with other elephants.

Another prime example of a vertebrate with a proboscis is a mammal whose name actually incorporates the word: the proboscis monkey. It is also known by the scientific name Nasalis larvatus and alternatively called the long-nosed monkey. The monkey's nose serves as an amplifier for its warning calls in times of danger. Also, it is theorized that the males of the species use their noses to attract potential mates. The proboscis on this type of primate can be as long as 7 inches (17.8 centimeters).

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There are other vertebrates that possess the proboscis. The tapir, a pig-like herbivore native to Central and South America as well as Southeast Africa, has a snout that it uses for grasping or holding. The snout on the male elephant seal, which belongs to the genus Mirounga, is said to resemble that of an elephant, and it is capable of producing incredibly loud roaring sound. Other examples include the aardvark, a nocturnal burrowing animal native to Africa; the numbat, a marsupial from Western Australia; the elephant screw, a tiny African insectivore; and the Hispaniolan Solenodon, another nocturnal burrowing animal native to the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Although the term proboscis is not usually applied to humans, it is used as an informal denotation of certain physical abnormalities. For instance, a long, elongated nose on a person can be referred to as a proboscis. The term can also be used when an unusually big nasal organ is accompanied by large eyes.

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