Five Facts About Elephants (That Aren’t Really True)
Stereotypes hurt. Some are negative: insinuating certain groups can’t drive well, are inherently lazy, all look the same or pronounce “about” incorrectly. Some can be positive: claiming everyone from a certain group is good with money, are superior athletes, are good at math or are extremely polite. All of them are hurtful, and if you went through that list trying to match each example to an ethnic group, you’re a bad person.
Our lies don’t just extend to our own species though. We slander our way through most of the plant and animal kingdom. We even adopt some of their names to insult others (weasel, rat, William Dafoe). However, few animals have had more unjust rumors spread about them than the majestic elephant.
With the international day of tolerance less than seven months away, it’s time to set the record straight about our long nosed friends.
Elephants Are Afraid of Mice
Starting off with a classic. The idea that the mighty elephant, the largest present day land-dwelling animal could be frightened by a tiny mouse speaks to us. If something that big could be afraid of something that small, are you really such a girlie-girl for wetting yourself when you see a spider? The only thing better would be if we could get footage of a blue whale getting scared by an anchovy, and we have our best men working on that around the clock.
This is one that’s been around for a while, most of us hearing about it from the movie Dumbo or from old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Some attribute it to accounts from circus workers who supposedly witnessed their plus-sized performers being terrified first hand. Some unscientific studies from sources like MythBusters have also contributed to the idea that they’re all giant scaredy-phants.
However, if you talk to a scientist, zookeeper, or one of the people from the next section of this article, you get a very different picture. Elephants are known to be bold, intelligent and occasionally merciless killers. They live in the same places as lions and tigers and know how to handle them. So is there nothing that scares them? As it turns out, yes there is, and no, it’s not mice.
Elephants don’t like what they can’t see, which turns out to be a lot of things. Though they have good hearing and an exceptional sense of smell, their eyesight is pretty shoddy. An observable threat can be addressed, but unidentified movement, sounds and smells, especially ones close by, is a real turn off for them. One of the boilerplate pieces of advice you’ll get from animal experts is to never make sudden movements. So scurrying in a nearby brush might startle an elephant, whether it’s a mouse, a predator, or some stupid tourist with a zoom lens.
And if you really did scare an elephant, you’re probably not going to end up laughing as it runs away, trunk between its legs. Elephants mean business, as some people already know.
Elephants Are Angry Drunks
You’d think with people talking smack about their phobias, elephants would have earned the right to a drink here or there. Unfortunately, when the booze kicks in there’s a lot of stampeding, devastation and death. Family reunions aside, stories of murderous, drunken elephants have been reported for years, including two attacks in the Indian province of Assam. While breaking into human farms for food, as they sometimes do, the behemoths stumbled onto casks of homemade rice beer and proceeded to get gong-showed. The first attack killed 4 and injured 6, while the second killed six and injured several others.
So are elephants gentle giants who can’t hold their sauce? Are they simply lacking some kind of Elepholics Anonymous? Actually, no. These attacks, which occurred years apart, account for only a fraction of the total elephant related deaths. In fact, as many as 500 people die each year from encounters with elephants.
The real culprit of the encounters is expansion of human populations into the elephant’s natural habit. As we push further into their territory, they are forced to look for food closer to our settlements, sometimes getting stampy in the progress. And elephants don’t even need human beings around to get royally sauced, as this clip from the time when it was okay to add whacky effects to documentaries indicates.
Curiously, nobody has stopped to ask why the elephants have taken to drinking. Maybe they have troubled pasts, and we all know an elephant never forgets. Except that one’s not true either.
An Elephant Never Forgets
The legend of the mighty memory of the elephant has been going on for a long time. The origin of the myth is curiously hard to pin down. The most probable explanation is that the phrase is like Paris Hilton: well known simply for being well known. Also like Paris Hilton, we mostly hear about from urban legend, second hand reports and only the smallest dash of scientific research.
Far and away the biggest contributor to the myth is stories. Many point to hearsay accounts of elephants interacting with humans, then remembering individuals months, years, decades, or whatever made up time period seems most compelling to the lie, er... tale. One popular, but actually verified, example was the book “Elephant Walk” which detailed elephants fighting for years to maintain their migration route. It ends with a bloody rampage as they destroy the town to re-establish the titular elephant walk. To capture this horror, they cast Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptation.
This story does align with some scientific work done on elephant memory. Elephants have been established to have decent memory when it comes to survival strategies. They can recognize other elephants and even people by scent, and some species undergo huge migrations. This type of memory is important when living in herds and trying to find water during dry seasons, like finding the last open bar with your buddies at 2 AM. So they have a pretty good memory for survival stuff, but no more than other many other animals. What about stuff they learn?
Well, as it turns out their ability to learn and remember can be manipulated by the cold, callous hand of science. Scientists found that they could force elephants to associate objects and symbols with food, just like McDonalds has been doing for years, using crates with markings on them. It took hundreds of attempts to teach them the concept but they found that many of them were able to use the concept again when retested a year later. So their memory isn’t flawless and they’re a little slow, but they have some capacity. At least enough that man can force these evolutionary wonders to march in parades and stand on giant balls for our shallow amusement. Go humanity!
Maybe we don’t feel bad for them because we feel they’re as shallow as we are. Unfortunately, rumors about elephant vanity have been greatly exaggerated.