Are elephants afraid of mice?

In stories mice routinely scare elephants to illustrate that everyone has an Achilles’ heel, even when they are big enough to crush a car. Ruby Snep wonders if elephants are afraid of mice outside the world of parable and, while at first it seems absurd, it turns out to be quite true.

Quite true, that is, if we fudge a little around the meaning of fear. Caged elephants in circuses and zoos have been seen wildly overreacting to mice scuttling through their personal space (and when you’re an elephant, you have a lot of personal space). There really isn’t any controversy over that — we just have a hard time swallowing the truth because of the apparent absurdity.

To get to the bottom of this behaviour you have to ignore the mouse — it’s a red herring (that’s a metaphor, not more biological surrealism). In the wild,elephants are pretty tolerant of other animals. When you have a hide up to one inch thick you can afford to let it all hang out and who cares what the lions down the road think.

But there are exceptions, among them snakes and driver ants which, despite their small size, pose a danger. And that’s the solution to our problem. Elephant’s react with such panic to scuttling mice not because they are mice, but because they are scuttling, and it’s hard to tell a mouse in the hay from a snake in the grass. From the elephant’s point of view it’s better to be safe than sorry.

That’s not quite the same as saying they are afraid of mice. After all, if you jumped at an indistinct shape in the corner of your eye and it turned out to be a balloon, would it be fair to say you were afraid of balloons? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Mice can make elephants act fearfully, though strictly speaking elephants are not afraid of them. Not that you’d care too much about the details if you found yourself anywhere near a spooked elephant. Practically speaking, elephants are indeed afraid of mice.

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