This Is the Real Reason Elephants Startle So Easily

Sometimes it's not the size of the threat, but the sound. Here's why some of the smallest creatures can make elephants jump.

ElephantsCraig Morrison/Shutterstock

Sometimes nursery tales let us down. Did you know that cheese is not a mouse’s favorite food? (They actually prefer peanut butter.) And elephants aren’t particularly afraid of mice, despite what cartoons have taught us. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus tested it themselves by holding mice directly in front of elephants’ faces—absolutely no reaction. But even though the sight of a mouse won’t scare an elephant, the sound of one can make them jump. Here are more “facts” about animals you have all wrong.

According to a study at the University of Cambridge, elephants have relatively poor vision, which explains why they respond better to vocal commands than they do to visual gestures. Since an elephant’s ears are better than its eyes, what really startles them is the sound of a mouse scurrying. The reason for this startle reaction, reports Mental Floss, could be a wariness of aggressive guardian ants (which will crawl up an elephant’s trunk) and swarms of bees (for obvious reasons). Check out 45 more fascinating facts about your favorite animals.

Now, elephant conservation efforts are putting this information to use: Researchers are testing various sounds as a way to drive elephants away from farms and other populated areas where they could face danger. One breakthrough has been the discovery of a distinct elephant warning call to warn the rest of the tribe about bee swarms. Any conservation efforts are good news, considering the number of elephants left in the world is probably smaller than you think.

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Taylor Markarian
Taylor is a regular contributor to covering culture, advice, travel, pets, and all things weird and haunted. She is the author of From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society, which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a B.A. in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.