Are elephants really afraid of mice?
The image of a large elephant cowering in fear when it sees a small mouse is commonly seen on children’s cartoons and movies, but how could a humongous elephant be scared of a small mouse? Is it just a funny cartoon myth, or do elephants stroll through the savannah in constant fear of killer mice?
If you think there’s no way a 6 tonne elephant could be scared of a tiny mouse, you might be right… sort of, Image by Anthony H via Flickr
The image of elephants running away from mice is not restricted to the movie Dumbo, with actual sighting of elephants running away from mice in the wild. But, no one really knows how these 6 tonne creatures could be so scared.
Why would an elephant be scared of a mouse?
The reason people think that elephants are scared of mice is that they could nibble on their feet and can climb into their trunks and suffocate them – too be fair that is quite scary.
This theory dates back to the year 77AD when there was a Greek story about a mouse that climbed into an elephant’s nose and then drove it crazy. Even in the 1600s an Irish doctor, Allen Moulin, believed that Elephants were scared of mice as they have no epiglottis – a flap of cartilage that covers the windpipe when swallowing – and so if I mouse crawled into its mouth it would suffocate.
Moulin said he had observed elephants sleep with their trunks close to the ground, and said this was probably so that rodents could not get into them whilst they slept.
Elephant expert, Richard Lair, said that this theory is “absurd” and that it is highly unlikely that a mouse could get all the way up an elephant’s trunk. Also that if a mouse was to get up an elephant’s trunk, it wouldn’t be very hard for the elephant to simply blow the mouse out of its nose.
It is unlikely that a mouse would get all the way up an elephants long trunk, Image by Megan Coughlin via Flickr
Are they actually scared?
A test was done on circus elephants were the elephant’s trainer held mice in their hand and showed them to the elephant. Surprisingly the elephants didn’t seem to care too much and apparently “looked bored.”
So are elephants actually scared of mice?
Josh Plotnik, a researcher of elephant behaviour and intelligence (which sounds like an amazing job) said that elephants have quite poor eyesight and therefore may just be startled when a small animal such as a mouse scurries past their feet. The elephant wouldn’t know whether it was a small mouse running around, or something more dangerous like a hyena. Josh said it would not only be mice that can cause elephants to be startled, but that “in the wild, anything that suddenly runs or slithers by an elephant can spook it.”
This might explain why the circus elephants were not scared by the mice held up to their heads as they were not running around their feet and startling them.
So, it is likely that elephants aren’t actually scared of mice, but are just startled by its sudden movements, through fear that it might be something larger and more dangerous than a tiny mouse.
The US TV show Mythbusters did a segment on whether elephants are scared of mice, seen here (skip to 3:40 to see the elephants reaction when confronted with a mouse): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpTSA_25wGE