Thursday, 2 June 2016

Are Elephants Really Afraid of Mice?

By Remy Melina | June 1, 2016 12:02pm ET

From the movie "Dumbo" to Saturday morning cartoons, the image of an elephant cowering from a miniscule mouse  is pretty well established. But the elephant's fear has more to do with the element of surprise than the mouse itself.

Theories abound that elephants are afraid of mice  because the tiny creatures nibble on their feet or can climb up into their trunks. However, there's no evidence to back up either of those claims.

The mouse-in-the-trunk myth, for example, seems to date back centuries to the ancient Greeks, who reportedly told fables about a mouse that climbed into an elephant's trunk and drove it crazy. Some have said the claim started with Pliny the Elder in A.D. 77, as reported by Discovery's Myth Busters.

Apparently, in the late 1600s, an Irish physician named Allen Moulin was trying to figure out why such big pachyderms might quiver at the sight of such a small rodent as a mouse, according to Christopher Plumb's "The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals  in Eighteenth-Century London" (I. B. Tauris, 2015). Moulin reasoned that since elephants had no epiglottis — the flap of cartilage that covers the opening to the windpipe when swallowing — the big creatures could be "worried" that a mouse might crawl up their trunk and suffocate them, Plumb wrote. "This seemed reasonable since the keeper [Moulin] had seen his elephant sleep with his trunk close to the ground, so that only air might go up it," Plumb, who received his doctoral degree from the University of Manchester, wrote in the book. However, as biologists today know, elephants are equipped with that fleshy windpipe cover. (The elephant's epiglottis can be seen in a figure in this Journal of Experimental Biology paper.)

"I think the myth arose by the idea of the mouse crawling up the elephant's trunk and nostrils — but that is absurd because the elephant could easily simply blow and eject the mouse," said elephant expert Richard Lair, who has researched elephants for 30 years, published multiple studies on their behavior and is an international adviser to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. "And that's in the very unlikely case that the mouse could [make it up the elephant's nostrils] anyway."

It's more likely that elephants, which have relatively poor eyesight

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