Elephants are the largest land animals in existence, and also one of the most fearless, and yet many of us believe the “joke” about elephants being scared of mice. At first glance, this makes no sense due to the difference in size, but is there actually any truth to the myth?
Why do we think elephants are scared of mice in the first place?
The first known reference to this elephant “fact” is found in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (natural History) encyclopedia published circa AD 77–79:
Of all other living creatures, they [elephants] cannot abide a mouse or a rat.
Nowadays the idea that elephants are scared of mice is firmly entrenched in the public consciousness. As young children we’re already familiar with the cartoon image of a terrified elephant hiding from a mouse, and most people tend not to question it from then on.
Major flaws in the elephants vs mice myth
With elephant captivity common in the forms of zoos and circuses, elephants have actually been shown to be indifferent to the mice living close by. It stands to reason if you’re raised in a particular environment (say a mouse-infested one!) that environment will hold much less fear for you. So while one could still argue that wild elephants are scared of mice, it is certainly not a universal truth.
The second problem with this myth is that elephants have pretty terrible eyesight, and mice are small! In the usual cartoon image, the elephant and the mouse are in an open space so fair enough, the mouse can’t really be missed. In the wild the occasional mouse scurrying around isn’t likely to be spotted, which leads us to the conclusion that if elephants are scared of anything it must be the sound of a small unidentified creature running around. And of course there are plenty of other creatures that would cause the same noise and have the same result.
There is also a theory that mice could crawl inside an elephant’s trunk in a search for somewhere to sleep. Aside from the obvious stupidity of any mouse doing so, an elephant is more than capable of blowing with enough force to dislodge something so small from their trunk, so fear of suffocation would appear to be nonsensical.
The Mythbusters test
Ok, so a lot of people saw a TV show called Mythbusters try and “prove” that elephants are scared of mice, but their experiment had a few flaws. For anyone who missed it, here’s the experiment in question:
Flaw one – White mouse
Generally speaking, animals that are highly visible in the environment are dangerous in some way. Think about it, if you’re a harmless little ball of fluff you do not want to stick out like a sore thumb. Therefore the choice of a bright white mouse for the experiment was unfortunate since now all we can say with any certainty is “elephants are wary of small unidentified white creatures they’ve never seen anything similar to”.
Flaw two – Wild elephants
As discussed above, captive elephants have been shown not to react to mice due to the simple fact that mice are a part of their environment. In this experiment, the elephants were not living around any particular source of food for mice and therefore were not necessarily scared of the mouse as much as just something new and strange.
Flaw three – Only mice?
If the elephant is specifically frightened of mice, one way to make the results more believable would be to introduce other small furry creatures (ones not native to the local environment) in the same way and observe the elephant’s reaction.
So are elephants definitely not scared of mice?
So far we’ve seen more evidence against the myth than for it, but that’s not to say this is completely improbable.
For a start, how many humans do you know who are terrified of small creatures like mice with no logical basis? Perhaps a more suitable question would be “can elephants be irrational?” and this is of course a whole study in itself.
One of the first facts about elephants anyone can recite is their immense size, but what we don’t often stop to think about is the disadvantages such a size would bring. For example, elephants can find it difficult to go from lying on their side to standing up and need a fair amount of room to do so. When standing, they rely on the ground around them providing a sure footing should they need to move quickly. Both of these needs could mean that an elephant perceives a small scuttling mouse as a potential obstacle in the same manner as a rolling rock or other small natural hazard, so this is a potential tick in the “believable” column.
In conclusion, just like the Mythbusters and even considering the flaws in their experiement, the best we can do at this point is to declare “elephants may or may not be scared of mice“. If you decide to undertake a more scientific study, please let us know!