Elephants afraid of miceThe idea that elephants are afraid of mice has been around for a long time, and persists today. Pliny (first century CE) says that elephants “hate mice and will refuse to eat fodder that has been touched by one.” Eustathius (fifth century CE) says “one is not so greatly amazed at the vast size of the elephant as at the mouse which is such an object of fear to the elephant.” The idea was repeated by Isidore of Seville (seventh century CE) and in later bestiaries. Disney brought the idea to modern audiences, and the image of an elephant terrified of a mouse has been a staple of cartoons ever since.

In the scientific age this idea is laughed at. Why would an elephant fear a mouse? One thoroughly discredited explanation is that the elephant is afraid the mouse will crawl into its trunk; another more plausible explanation is that elephants instinctively react to movements they can’t clearly see or sounds they can’t locate, as of a mouse scurrying around underfoot. It seems that domesticated elephants have no interest in mice (based on an experiment done at a Barnum and Baily circus), but what about wild elephants?

The TV show Mythbusters set out to test the idea. In a wildlife reserve in Africa, where the elephants are somewhat used to seeing humans but are not domesticated, the Mythbusters team hollowed out a ball of elephant dung, put a white mouse under it, and rigged a string that would cause the ball to tip over, freeing the mouse. This rig was placed on a path the elephants often traveled. When an elephant approached, the ball was tipped, the mouse came out, and to everyone’s surprise the elephant stopped abruptly, backed up, and made a wide circle around the mouse. The experiment was repeated without the mouse to see if it was the movement of the dung ball that spooked the elephant; the elephant ignored the ball completely. The experiment (with mouse) was tried again with a different elephant, and it also saw and avoided the mouse. At no time did the elephants show real fear of the mouse, but they definitely and clearly avoided the mice by a wide margin.

Another (longer) version of the video shows the experiment in more detail, and there is also a video of the Mythbusters guys discussing the event.

So are elephants actually afraid of mice? Perhaps there is a little truth to this tale after all!