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Mouse and Elephant Source


I have heard from people working in zoos that the myth of elephants being afraid of mice is not true.

Here is a short video of a zoo elephant clearly not caring about a mouse.

I don't find it surprising that such a domesticated elephant has learned that mice pose no danger, but what about elephants living in the wild?

Are (wild) elephants "naturally" afraid of mice?
What is their initial reaction when encountering a mouse?


From an Elephant FAQ:

... research has shown that they are, in fact, wary of mice and will back away when confronted with one, but not to the hysterical degree portrayed in many stories.

The simple fact is that elephants will back away from something strange, and so this may not be an actual fear of the mouse itself but just of a new experience.

From the Australian Zoo:

Elephants don't have the best eye sight, only seeing up to about ten meters in front of them, and not much of a neck, so they certainly have difficultly seeing anything running underneath them.

So, [if a] small animal was to run underneath one of our elephants, they may indeed get a fright!



MythBusters Source

The MythBusters also looked into it and found that a wild elephant did back off when it suddenly saw a mouse.

And a control test showed that it wasn't just the sudden movement on the ground that provoked the reaction (the mouse didn't actually move much at all ).

You can watch a video of their experiment here.

But they only tested one elephant, so it wasn't very conclusive. They tagged the myth "Plausible".


My question:
Are there scientifically more sound experiments/studies on (wild) elephants' reaction to mice?

Do (wild) elephants get startled by any small, unknown animal, or is there something special about mice? (After all there are also humans who are afraid of mice, but not of hamsters or guinea pigs. )

  • but not of hamsters or guinea pigs are you sure? – Lie Ryan May 22 '11 at 17:57
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    Maybe this helps avoiding rabies. – starblue May 22 '11 at 18:25
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    At least they are scared by burning pigs. – jinawee Aug 8 '13 at 18:15
  • How wild was the "wild" elephant in the Mythbusters experiment anyway? If it really was a wild elephant the experiment would be more about how close they could get to it before it became excited, and what it might do if it got excited. – M. A. Golding Jul 4 '18 at 18:22
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Eek!

I too recall that Mythbusters episode, and that was going to be my answer, but you stole my thunder. ;) Extreme Science tackles this episode with some analysis:

1) Definition of 'fear' response - while the elephant in the experiment clearly responds to the presence of the mouse in front of it, it can be argued that the elephant's response is not one of fear, but of surprise. This elephant only stops in its tracks when it sees the mouse and then sidesteps, avoiding coming any closer to the mouse as it scurries across the elephant's path. It may even be argued that the elephant notices the mouse, recognizes it as another living creature, and is merely moving around to avoid stepping on it.

That begs the question; was the elephant startled by the sudden appearance of the mouse from under the ball of dung, or was it startled by the fact that there was a mouse in its path?

  1. Holding conditions constant - not enough controls were implemented to determine if the presence/existence of the mouse caused the elephant to respond the way it did. What if the mouse had been a different color, other than white? Or a rat, a gerbil, rabbit, a snake, turtle, remote-controlled toy car, etc? What if the mouse/rat/gerbil was introduced to the elephant from different angles, so the elephant could see it approaching through its peripheral vision, at ground level, or up in a tree? I'd be curious to see if that same elephant would have responded the same way to a wind-up ladybug toy suddenly appearing from under a ball of dung in its path.

  2. Pre-existing conditions - had this elephant been exposed to mice before? Was this a wild elephant in its natural habitat, or a domesticated elephant released into the field for purposes of this test? Are domesticated elephants living in captivity used to the presence of mice in their feed and, therefore, unafraid of them, while wild elephants are unaccustomed to seeing mice? What was the previous lifetime experience/exposure of this particular elephant to mice specifically, and to small(er) animals, in general? Was this animal put in a trailer and driven to this location to be filmed for this experiment? If so, has it traveled this way before? Was it amongst strange elephants, or was there something about the presence of the film crew that made it anxious before the experiment began?

  3. Sample size - most importantly, guys, an experiment with a sample size of one does not a 'scientific' study make! In order to draw the conclusion, 'Elephants are afraid of mice', it would be necessary to experiment with a representative sample size of elephants, so that a normal distribution of an elephant population is represented in your study.

Conclusion: More study is needed (more subjects and better controls).

ABC News also did a small sample size experiment, and came to a different conclusion (although this was with circus elephants):

And what would one of these elephants do if we showed it a mouse?

Not much. Troy Metzler, the circus' elephant trainer, let me take one white mouse and show it to an elephant that only looked bored by it all.

Snopes dismisses the legend as false outright.

Doing a Google search on only .edu sites, I didn't see any results that were beyond anecdotal.

BOTTOM LINE: It would seem that people have been interested in this subject, however no one has dared the IG Nobel prize to perform a rigorous study yet.

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    "It may even be argued that the elephant notices the mouse, recognizes it as another living creature, and is merely moving around to avoid stepping on it." - If you read the Wikipedia article on Elephant intelligence it talks about how they are thought to be highly highly altruistic - which would support that theory. – Wipqozn May 22 '11 at 18:07
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    @Wipqozn, Very good point. I have often thought that elephants are under appreciated for their intelligence. – Larian LeQuella May 22 '11 at 18:19
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    @Wipqozn So to do it right, we need to fMRI the elephant? – Larry OBrien May 22 '11 at 20:35
  • I'd appreciate a reason for the downvote. :) How may I improve the answer? – Larian LeQuella May 23 '11 at 1:31
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    I'm assuming the lack of rigorous study on this topic has a direct correlation to the astronomical costs and logistical nightmares involved with feeding and keeping the mouse. – Monkey Tuesday May 23 '11 at 4:58

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