There’s something intrinsically funny about this image. We can’t help but laugh at the idea of earth’s biggest land animal recoiling in fear whenever a humble little mouse scurries by. Countless cartoons have played with this trope, including an adorable “Sidney the Elephant” short from 1960:
A series of 1939 experiments yielded some very interesting results. Researcher F. G. Benedict found that zoo-dwelling elephants consistently failed to react when a mouse entered their field of vision. Even those brave mice who climbed onto the creatures’ trunks were ignored. However, when a mouse scurried over a sheet of paper, a few elephants—evidently spooked by the strange rustling noise—stood up and trumpeted.
In 2006, Ringling Brothers elephant trainer Troy Metzler conducted a basic fright test. The circus employee held up a series of white mice, presenting them at eye level to elephant after elephant. As an ABC reporter who was present at the scene noted, the elephants appeared completely unfazed by Metzler’s rodents.
Captive elephants regularly come into contact with stray mice. For the most part, the little pests don’t seem to bother them. At least, not directly.
Still, elephants can startle easily. Given their poor eyesight, elephants are liable to get scared when something rushes by without warning. (In India, for example, it's not uncommon for a small, trotting dog to send a riding elephant racing for the hills.)
So, while mice aren’t inherently bothersome to elephants, the sudden movements of these little creatures could put them on edge should they be taken by surprise. Two even smaller creatures, however, have been known to bother them.
Guardian ants will passionately defend their tree-based colonies against elephants by crawling into their nostrils. Unsurprisingly, the mega-herbivores steer clear of infested plants, as researchers discovered in 2010. “It seems that elephants simply do not like ants swarming up the insides of their trunks and I can’t say I blame them,” biologist Todd Palmer notes.
Bees, too, can drive them crazy. When the insects start swarming, African elephants generally scram. Elephants even warn each other about angry bees from afar with a special alarm call. Scientists hope to use recordings of this low grumble to keep the huge creatures away from crop fields and populated areas.