Are Elephants Really Scared Of Mice?

It's basically a cartoon trope: the giant, seemingly unflappable and mighty elephant is reduced to abject, prancing terror at the sight of a plucky mouse (who's probably involved in an elaborate heist to obtain cheese). Is there any truth to it? And if not, where did this weird notion come from?

It's only partly true that elephants are scared of mice. In an article on Live Science, Dr. Josh Plotnik, a Cambridge University elephant behaviorist, points out that elephants are easily startled in the wild. They also have naturally poor eyesight. These traits combined mean an elephant will typically exhibit a fear response when any small critter unexpectedly crosses their path. A human mightn't fear gremlins, but will still jump in the movie when one bursts out of the Christmas tree. It's the same deal with elephants and mice. An elephant might be startled by a mouse, but actual lasting fear? Not so much. 

Research strongly indicates, however, that elephants are terrified of a different teeny-tiny animal: bees. In a 2018 research paper published in Biological Conservation, researchers found that elephants actively avoid contact with African honeybees. The sound of swarming bees will cause prodigiously intelligent elephants to vocalize warning signals, and retreat from the nasty little buzzing critters as quickly as possible. 

So, where did this false news about elephants and mice come from? ZME Science offers a solid answer. While the precise origin of the myth is lost to history, in 77 AD Pliny the Elder (an influential ancient Greek Scholar) wrote, "the elephant hates the mouse above all other creatures." Not dissimilar to an Instagram influencer loudly recommending a dodgy brand of sunglasses, Pliny the Elder's reputation meant this oddly dodgy assertion was simply taken at face value. And it was repeated for millennia afterward, right up to the present day. Flash forward to 1941 (and possibly 2019 with the remake), and Disney's Dumbo movie gave its titular stumpy-legged character that same unjustified fatal character flaw of unbridled mouse-terror. Elephants may not be perfect, but they're no fraidy-cats when it comes to mice.

To set the record straight once and for all: elephants aren't scared of mice. Continuing a long history of suspect animal depictions, an ancient Greek egghead named Pliny the Elder was the first known person to perpetrate this pachydermatous prevarication. His torch of ignorance and infamy was later carried forth by none other than Walt Disney himself. 

Bees, on the other hand, are a completely different matter. Stay the hell away from bees.