Tipsy Elephants Probably Poisoned, Not Drunk

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.