Elephant myths busted!

Are they afraid of mice? Do they like peanuts? Do they never forget? Separate elephant-fact from elephant fiction with our collection of myth-busting facts.

Elephants love to eat peanuts
Neither Asian nor African elephants eat peanuts in the wild, and they are not typically fed to captive animals either. Since the average elephant requires around 150 kilograms (331 pounds) of food each day, the tiny legumes would simply not make a dent in their huge appetites. This myth may have originated in the days when many circuses and zoos allowed visitors to feed the animals, and sold bags of peanuts for them to do so.

All elephants have tusks
Due to a genetic mutation, some elephants don’t grow tusks. This may put them at a disadvantage in the wild, since they use these elongated ivory incisors as defensive weapons and to dig for food and water. Despite this, numbers of tuskless elephants are on the rise in some populations, due to the impact of ivory poaching. Elephants without tusks are not targeted by poachers, so they are more likely to survive and pass on their tuskless genes.

Elephants get drunk on fermented fruit
Anecdotes of African elephants getting intoxicated after eating rotting marula fruits have been popular tales for many years. Delightful as the image of a tipsy elephant may be, it is a myth. Elephants are so fond of these fruits that any falling from the tree are likely be eaten well before they have the chance to ferment. What’s more, the average elephant would have to eat over 1,400 well-fermented marula fruits to ingest enough alcohol to get drunk.

Elephants are likely to eat any nearby fruits long before they have a chance to ferment

Elephants can’t swim
You could easily make the mistake of thinking that an elephant is too cumbersome to swim, but like most mammals, they are very capable in the water. Using its trunk as a snorkel, peeping periscope-like above the surface to breathe, an elephant can doggy-paddle through the water at speeds of two kilometres (1.2 miles) an hour. They can swim tirelessly for hours this way, reportedly covering distances of up to 48 kilometres (30 miles) at a push.

They drink through their trunks
When you’re as big as an elephant, getting your head down to water level for a drink takes a lot of effort, so it makes sense that they would use their long trunks. However, the trunk is essentially an extended nose and upper lip, so drinking directly through it like a straw would be as unpleasant as you trying to drink through your nose! Instead, elephants suck water into their trunks and then spray it into their mouths to swallow.

African Elephant herd drinking at a waterhole, Hwanbe National Park, Zimbabwe
Elephant drink with their trunks, not through their trunks

Elephants are the only animal with four knees
The joints on an elephant’s lower front legs point forward, so they do look like knees. But just like all other quadruped mammals, elephants have knees on their hind legs and elbows and wrists on their forelegs. What people assume is a knee is in fact the elephant’s wrist. To protect their limb joints from the impact of their huge weight, elephants actually walk on tiptoes, with large pads of fat under their heels for cushioning.

There are elephant graveyards
According to legend, old or sick elephants will leave the herd and intuitively travel to a specific place to die – a myth that has been perpetuated by the depiction of such burial grounds in movies like Tarzan and The Lion King. Collections of elephant bones have been found, but these ‘graveyards’ are more likely the remains of animals that have unfortunately suffered the same fate, such as being victims of poaching or a natural disaster.

When elephant bones are found together, it’s more than likely due to predators


Fact or fiction?

Some commonly held beliefs about elephants turn out to be true…

Elephants are afraid of mice
Fear is hard to prove, but an experiment on TV show MythBusters showed that elephants are startled by mice and back away when they see one.

They can’t jump
It is often said that elephants are the only mammals that are unable to jump, but sloths, hippos and rhinos also lack this ability.

They have excellent hearing
This is hardly a surprise given their trademark ears! But elephants can also ‘hear’ low-frequency rumbles through the ground, such as stomps from a distant herd in danger.

Their relatives look like guinea pigs
The closest living relatives of elephants are manatees and dugongs, but one unexpected member in their family tree is the tiny rodent-like rock hyrax.

Elephants never forget
“Never” might be an exaggeration, but these creatures do have incredible memories. They can remember other elephants they met briefly even after decades apart.

African elephant kneeling in front of a mouse
Elephants have been observed being startled by mice…


Also read:

How do elephants communicate?

Can elephants jump?

Are elephants dangerous?