Are Elephants Really Afraid of Mice?

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: October 15, 2021
Image Credit Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com
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If I had just settled in to watch a movie in my living room and a squirrel scooted out from under the drapes and ran across the floor I would be startled! If that same squirrel scooted across the street in front of me when I was out walking my dog I probably wouldn’t blink. Same squirrel but different scenario. Is that why people think elephants are afraid of mice? Are mice common in their environments? Are elephants afraid or just startled? Would elephants be afraid of squirrels too?

Let’s take a look at where this idea came from and whether elephants are really afraid of mice!

Why Are Elephants Afraid of Mice?

Are elephants afraid of mice - an elephant and mouse stand toe to toe
An elephant bravely squares off against a mouse!

Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

It is not certain where the story of the big elephant being afraid of the tiny mouse originated but multiple sources say it began with ancient Greeks telling fables of mice climbing inside elephants trunks and driving them crazy. Others hypothesize that they think elephants are afraid that a mouse would climb inside their trunk, plugging it up and stopping them from breathing. These stories have been passed down through generations and are popularized through books, movies and cartoons. But is there any truth to it?

MythBusters Tackles Whether Elephants Are Afraid of Mice?

On the Discovery Channel’s show MythBusters, the show’s hosts Adam Savage and Jayme Hyneman hid a small white mouse under a pile of dung, and then waited for the elephants to approach. When the elephants were nearby they pulled a wire to release the mouse and watched to see if the elephants noticed. The results? The elephants didn’t stand on their hind legs, trumpet their trunks and cower in the corner. But they did notice the mouse, seem to startle and take a step away from the mouse. The hosts were shocked by the results, however does this prove that elephants are afraid of mice? Let’s see what others have found.

20/20 Finds Elephants AREN’T Afraid of Mice

Are elephants afraid of mice - mouse illuminating elephant
Could the Mythbusters experiment prove that elephants are afraid of mice?

3d factory/Shutterstock.com

Another show did their own experiment to see if elephants were indeed afraid of mice. On 20/20 the host contacted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The elephant trainer, Troy Metzler, let the host show one of the elephants a little white mouse. He then took the white mouse around and showed it to a few of the other elephants. The results? The elephants didn’t seem to notice the mouse at all.

So, Are Elephants REALLY Afraid of Mice?

Are Elephants Afraid of Mice - Mouse on Elephant Trunk
Elephants and mice. Friend or foe?

Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

Both of these examples cannot be referred to as research. The sample size of each experiment was 2-4 mice at most which is not a representative sample size of elephants. Secondly, there were few controls in each experiment. There was not a group of elephants that were familiar with mice and a group that were less familiar with mice. And as one little girl pointed out, the MythBusters used a white mouse which would be rare in an elephant habitat, so what if the experiment was done with a variety of colored mice? In the 20/20 experiment, the mouse was held and shown to elephants; it was not scampering across the ground. So what does a real elephant researcher think?

Elephant Researcher Josh Plotnik Describes What Elephant Fear in the Wild

According to University of Cambridge researcher Josh Plotnik, “In the wild, anything that suddenly runs or slithers by an elephant can spook it.” He goes on to explain that it is not so much that it is a mouse, it can be any animal that makes a sudden move. Elephants have a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight, so it is likely that the elephants are programmed to be startled until they know if the animal making the movements is a threat.

Final Verdict on Elephants Being Afraid of Mice

So are elephants really afraid of mice?

Maybe. It seems elephants can be “startled” by mice but there clearly needs to be more research done before we pass on our cartoon fables to the next generation.

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness and suggesting actions we can all do to help wildlife. As a former elementary school teacher I have a love for learning and teaching. My goal is to get kids fired-up about animals. Learning about the animals we share this earth with makes life better. When I am not writing I am living the good life with my husband and six kids (we are down to two that are still at home...and our giant labradoodle, Tango!).

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