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Tipsy Elephants Probably Poisoned, Not Drunk

An elephant cow staggers to her feet after being given the antidote to a tranquilizer dart in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, Oct.13, 1997. The elephant, identified by a radio collar, is one of a control group that is part of a field experiment testing contraceptives on wild elephants. (AP Photo/Adil Bradlow)

There's a longstanding myth that African elephants sometimes get plastered on the fruit of the marula tree.

As with many myths, there are some facts that fuel this one. Elephants do sometimes get visibly tipsy. The marula fruit gains an alcohol content of about 3 percent after a few days on the ground. Elephants like the fruit. And elephants have been known to raid stores of beer and wine, suggesting a desire to imbibe.

But in a new study -- yes, just about everything gets studied these days -- researchers determined that a three-ton elephant eating like a pig, and consuming nothing but marula fruit, would struggle to get smashed.

"Assuming all other model factors are in favor of inebriation, the intoxication would minimally require that the elephant avoids drinking water, consumes a diet of only marula fruit at a rate of at least 400 percent normal maximum food intake, and with a mean alcohol content of at least 3 percent," biologists Steve Morris, David Humphreys, and Dan Reynolds of the University of Bristol write a paper to be published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

Here's the kicker: Elephants prefer marula fruit direct from the tree, not the stuff that's been lying around.

So what about those occasionally tottering pachyderms?

The researchers speculate that they've been poisoned instead. African elephants also eat the bark of the marula tree, the scientists note, and the bark is inhabited by the pupae of a beetle traditionally used to poison the tips of arrows.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.