When I was a kid, I truly believed that elephants were terrified of mice.
This wasn’t something that I even thought of questioning at the time. After all, numerous cartoons and comic books confirmed the idea for me. Not to mention kid’s stories that my dad read to me when I was little and I later read myself.
Here’s a more modern, albeit somewhat satirical, take on those old cartoons to illustrate the idea:
But, many years later, after I had donned my hoax-slayer hat, I came across the “elephants are scared of mice” claim again and decided to dig a little deeper.
Turns out that the idea is not the unassailable fact that young Brett believed it to be.
A quite famous MythBusters segment (discussed below) notwithstanding, there is actually no compelling evidence to suggest that our elephant friends are inherently frightened of mice at all!
A report on Extreme Science notes:
Many caretakers have observed mice crawling on the trunks and faces of (awake) elephants and observed that the elephants take absolutely no notice of the mice, much less express fear or anxiety in their presence. Based on observations of interactions between elephants and mice, and the apparent peaceful coexistence, it’s unclear where the myth may have originated.
This video from John Stossel also explores the myth and shows circus elephants being decidedly NOT scared of mice.
The stories I remember all suggested that the elephants were scared that the mice might run up inside their trunks thereby causing pachyderm panic and, ultimately, suffocation.
But, according to elephant expert Richard Lair (quoted in a Live Science report on the topic) the idea of a mouse crawling up an elephant’s trunk is actually absurd “because the elephant could easily simply blow and eject the mouse” and it would be very unlikely that said rodent could actually reach the elephant’s nostrils.
The more likely origin of the legend is that elephants are simply startled by small, moving or out-of-place animals that might cross their paths. Not just mice, but any little creature. The LiveScience report notes:
“In the wild, anything that suddenly runs or slithers by an elephant can spook it,” said Josh Plotnik, a researcher of elephant behavior and intelligence at the University of Cambridge in England and the head of elephant research for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai, Thailand, told Live Science. “It doesn’t have to be a mouse — dogs, cats, snakes or any animal that makes sudden movements by an elephant’s feet can startle it.”
So, what of the above mentioned Myth Busters segment? If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out now:
At first viewing, the video does seem to add at least some substance to the old story. But, although I do love the MythBusters, this experiment alone is not really enough to either prove or disprove the myth.
The elephant did not appear overly scared of the mouse. Just wary and perhaps a tad startled. It certainly did not rush away in a blind, trumpeting panic as depicted in the old cartoons I used to watch.
The Extreme Science report details some valid reasons why we should not draw any concrete conclusions from the Myth Busters experiment alone. Perhaps factors other than an instinctive terror of little rodents may have been at play.
Of course, John Stossel’s video (included above) showing trained elephants acting indifferently to a mouse does not conclusively bust the myth either. Further scientific tests, with larger samples sizes and more stringent controls, would be required before we can draw any solid scientific conclusions.
But, we can at least conclude that elephants are probably not panicked by the idea that the mice will run up inside their trunks and choke them. And, there are many well-documented encounters between mice and elephants that suggest elephant indifference rather than fear. It is thus reasonable to conclude that elephants are not instinctively terrified by mice in all circumstances.
On a deeper level, perhaps the story has endured for so long because it offers a compelling idea about the nature of power and those who wield it. Given the right circumstances, even the mighty may tremble when confronted by the seemingly weak and insignificant. Small does not always equate to powerlessness.
It’s perhaps just the David and Goliath story reframed.