Laelaps

i-70e37e076f9cbf7833da1e3c3923c3af-elephant-head-circle-thumb-174x174-19282.jpg

Contrary to their herbivorous habits in the wild, the elephants that appear in the long-running animated show The Simpsons are often carnivorous. In almost every episode featuring an elephant the pachyderm puts another animal in its mouth (i.e. Bart’s pet elephant “Stampy“) if it does not actually consume it. An exception is the Asian elephant in the episode in which Kwik-E-Mart shopkeeper Apu gets married, “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons.”

Fortunately for the wedding guests, the Asian elephant Apu rides in on does not attempt to eat anyone. Instead the elephant is terrified by a mouse it sees while walking up to the altar. This is a famous bit of folklore, that elephants are afraid of mice, but the scene made me wonder where it had come from.

It is difficult to think of any reason why an elephant should fear a mouse, but the 1903 edition of Holmes’ Third Reader presents a scenario that would be bothersome to any Elephas or Loxodonta.

16. Big and wise as the elephant is, he is afraid of one animal. It is not the tiger, nor is it the mighty lion ; it is the tiny mouse.

17. An elephant in a menagerie once came near doing a great deal of mischief all because of a little mouse. The mouse had escaped from its cage. Mice like to creep into holes.

18. The end of the elephant’s trunk was resting upon the floor. ” Here’s a nice hole,” said the mouse to himself. ” It’s just the place for me.” So up the long nose of the elephant he crept.

19. In a moment the elephant was wild with fear. He nearly broke his chain. The keepers did not know what to do. They thought the elephant had gone mad and that they would have to shoot him. Suddenly all was quiet again. The mouse had dropped from the elephant’s trunk.

[The list also provides the following advice to zoo patrons: "If you ever can go to a menagerie and see an elephant, do so; but be sure to be very kind to him; for if you are not, he knows well how to punish you, and he never forgets an unkindness."]

This was not the first time this story was published, however. In 1883 the author of Hygiene For Girls used the tale to suggest that “nervousness” was a trait that could be inherited. He wrote;

In some of these instances we can see a cause, or at least a reason, for the nervous manifestation, while in others we can not. We are told that the elephant has good ground for his fear of the mouse, in the fact that the small animal is liable to make its way into the nostril of the larger one, thereby, of course, causing intense suffering and perhaps danger to life. But it does not seem likely that the elephant should know this fact if he has never experienced it, and, not knowing it, his terror of the mouse is inexplicable, unless we suppose that the experience of past generations of elephants has impressed his nervous system with an instinctive horror of mice.

I have no doubt that this story has even deeper roots, although where it first originated I have yet to determine. It is hogwash, elephants are not afraid of mice and mice do not have a habit of running up elephant trunks, but the humorous image of something as ponderous as an elephant lumbering away from a mouse ensures that the myth will probably remain for some time.

Not all stories about mice and elephants treat the animals as antagonists, though. In the 20th volume of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland there is a translated Indian folk tale that reads like a precursor to a scene from C.S. Lewis’ famous The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Once upon a time there was a population of thousands of mice that lived in the woods, and these mice were terrified by an approaching herd of elephants. Surely their homes would be destroyed as the proboscideans stomped through the forest!

The mice frantically tried to think of a solution, but their destruction seemed imminent. Then one had a brilliant idea. When royalty pass by, he squeaked, it is best to flatter them, and so ambassadors should be sent to the elephants to beseech them to choose a less populated path. The elephants listened and made sure not to trod on the mice, even if they did eat almost every green thing in the forest.

As the elephants left, though, one became trapped in a snare set by a carpenter. With almost no food to eat the elephant quickly became emaciated, and the herd had seemingly left him to die. Then a mouse came by and asked the elephant why he was not with his kin. “I’m trapped!” the elephant trumpeted, and so the mouse got some of his fellows to come and gnaw at the snare. It snapped, allowing the grateful elephant to head off after his herd. The moral of the story? “Make a friend wherever you can.”

Comments

  1. #1 Ahcuah
    September 18, 2009

    Mythbusters did this, and, by golly, elephants really do startle and avoid mice. They devised a mouse container that looked like dung, and then remotely turned it over when an elephant got close. When there was a mouse, the elephant definitely startled and moved away. When they left it empty and turned it over, the elephant ignored it.

    Really surprising.

  2. #2 Emory Kimbrough
    September 18, 2009

    Have a look at the Mythbusters segment on elephants and mice. Sure looks like something is going on:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpTSA_25wGE

    Would you know whether snakes are a significant threat to elephants in spite of the elephant’s great bulk and thick skin? If so, elephants may naturally avoid _anything_ that makes animal-like movements low to the ground. It’s easier to evolve a general avoidance of ground-level things that scurry, as opposed to evolving a more complicated snake-specific behavior. Plus there’s the usual selection to react immediately and err on the side of caution, rather than wait until you’re sure it’s a snake.

  3. #3 Gaythia
    September 18, 2009

    Ignoring elephants and mice entirely, what I found intriguing from this post was the citation for “Hygiene for Girls”(1883). It is fascinating to read. Much of the focus is on the womb and things that would supposedly traumatize it (hence the interest in nervousness). Much of the advice here would make necessary real life activities impossible. How did our female ancestors survive this sort of “scientific wisdom”? It seems to me that women in general must have realized that that this “science” could not be reconciled with female experience.

  4. #4 gg
    September 18, 2009

    Though Mythbusters did show that elephants avoid mice, it is a long stretch to go from ‘avoidance’ to ‘fear’. I don’t consider myself afraid of mice, but I would certainly go out of my way to avoid stepping on them. The real test (though one I don’t advocate) would be putting an elephant between a swarming carpet of mice and a real threat, such as a fire. I imagine the outcome would be something along the lines of this.

  5. #5 Rob Jase
    September 18, 2009

    Alright, clearly either Adam & Jamie either have to try again or one of us (who has a rally big yard) has to go for a grant to run a double-blind test at home.

  6. #6 Raptor Lewis
    September 18, 2009

    I agree that the elephant’s fear of mice is garbage! There’s no reason to fear them, and an animal doesn’t fear things without a valid reason.

    As for the Mythbuster’s experiment with this metioned above, the elephant was startled and confused of ANYTHING being there! It probably would have reacted to a scorpion or something being there the same way. There is no guarantee that it was afraid of the mouse itself. It’s just not possible nor plausible.

  7. #7 neil
    September 18, 2009

    The legend shows up in Pliny’s Natural History (ca. 77-79 AD). Perhaps as “folk wisdom” it goes back even much further.

    Pliny writes:

    “They [elephants] have the greatest aversion to the mouse of all animals, and quite loathe their food, as it lies in the manger, if they perceive that it has been touched by one of those animals.”

    The edition I link to notes that “this fact is confirmed by Cuvier” but I haven’t tracked that reference down yet….

  8. #8 Laelaps
    September 18, 2009

    Thanks for the reference, Neil. I knew that the folktale had to go back further.

    As for Mythbusters, I am not really convinced by their experiment. Maybe the elephant saw the wires and did not want to trip. Perhaps the fact that the mouse was white played a role. Maybe the fact that the white mouse seemed to be coming out of a dung ball, which they do not often do I would imagine, had something to do with the reaction. It wasn’t a bad idea for an experiment, but it is far from a slam-dunk for folk zoology. I would be more interested to see how, say, captive elephants react (if they do at all) to mice that feed on the hay bales used to feed the proboscideans. Just think, in some city zoos some elephants might even see rats now and then. While the elephant in the show avoided the dung ball during the mouse trial it is impossible to tell whether it was afraid of the mouse or something else was going on. I had not seen it, though, so many thanks to those who sent it in.

  9. #9 Jeremy
    September 19, 2009

    I’d heard this piece of folklore originates from a traditional Chinese board-game called 斗兽棋 or “Jungle”. It’s basically a variety of chess where each piece can only take certain others. The rule that 鼠 (mouse) can take 象 (elephant) was originally included so the 鼠 piece wouldn’t be completely useless, but in most versions of the rulebook the reason given is that the mouse can crawl into the elephant’s ear and eat its brains.

  10. #10 DaveH
    September 19, 2009

    For what it’s worth, Ganesha (Hindu elelphant-headed god) is often depicted riding on a mouse or with one close to his feet (for reasons that are unclear, apparently). The earliest (extant) depictions are later than Pliny, though. Given Jeremy’s “Jungle” reference above, that’s elephant /mouse associations through 3 major cultural traditions.

  11. #11 John Hutchinson
    September 19, 2009

    I’ve worked a bit with elephants and it’s not that mice in particular scare them, but they generally dislike animals that move quickly, especially if the animals go behind them or where they otherwise can’t see them. Small animals can outmaneuver elephants and elephants seem to be aware of this. Maybe this is where the mouse story stems from. The most upset an elephant I worked with ever got was when a hyperactive dog was scampering around and barking, then ran behind the elephant. The elephant bellowed and charged into the jungle, taking about 30 minutes to recover.

  12. #12 Anida Adler
    September 19, 2009

    Aw, John (#11), I feel for the elephant! Poor thing!

    I find the subject of the blog and the comments trail utterly fascinating. It’s really wonderful to tease out the origin of folk tales or superstitions.

  13. #13 Raymond Minton
    September 19, 2009

    Folklore about animals, even when it’s demonstrably untrue, persists in our culture for some reason (I’ve heard countless references, in political and other contexts, to ostriches burying their heads in the sand, which, of course, they don’t do!)

  14. #14 Coragyps
    September 19, 2009

    Elephants I’m not prepared to address, but when one is at the eyepiece of one’s telescope five miles from the nearest house and a mouse (well, a small mammal of some sort) runs up one’s pant leg to nearly the knee, one does tend to startle. Not enough to tear up the telescope, but that may have just been blind luck.

  15. #15 DDeden
    September 19, 2009

    “Folk Zoology” I like that.

    IMO its far more parsimonious that elephants avoid mice due to a fear of mice entering their orifices, than that mice avoid elephants due to a fear of elephants entering their orifices. So there.

  16. #16 daedalus2u
    September 20, 2009

    The avoidance might be due to transmissible diseases, maybe even transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Elk and deer are quite susceptible to them, presumably elephants are also.

  17. #17 johannes
    September 21, 2009

    Some rodents are attracted by tight holes and openings, this has been utilized by designers of rodent traps. Still, the trunk story is a fairy tale.

    > The avoidance might be due to transmissible diseases, maybe
    > even transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Elk and deer
    > are quite susceptible to them, presumably elephants are
    > also.

    I don’t know about transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, but EMCV can be transmitted from rodents to Elephants, and manuals advise elephant keepers to maintain a tight rodent control regime, see here:

    http://books.google.de/books?id=oCpiZA61tyQC&pg=PA68&lpg=PA68&dq=rodents+feet+elephant&source=bl&ots=2IIbJco-4f&sig=6k5S9EPLqxzh-m4ge3byMtE0fVg&hl=de&ei=mn23SvjDKsHJ_gbT4qXSDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=rodents%20feet%20elephant&f=false

    Some sources also claim that rodents gnaw into the feet of sleeping elephants, this supposedly causes potentially lethal bleedings. Those recounts are, however, usually very old (mostly from the early 20th century), and from the popular press rather than from technical papers, so their reliability might be doubted.

    Anyway, many members of the megafauna – including humans – tend to consider small scampering animals irritating, so why should elephants be an exception?