for National Geographic News
Almost anyone who has read a travel brochure about Africa has heard of elephants getting drunk from the fruit of the marula tree.
The lore holds that elephants can get drunk by eating the fermented fruit rotting on the ground. Books have been written asserting the truth of the phenomenon, and eyewitness accounts of allegedly intoxicated pachyderms have even been made.
But a new study to be published in the March/April 2006 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology tells a very different story.
Steve Morris, a biologist at the University of Bristol in England and a co-author of the study, says anecdotes of elephants found drunk in the wild go back more than a century.
"There are travelers' tales from about 1839 reporting Zulu accounts that 'elephants gently warm their brains with fermented fruits,'" Morris said.
But there is nothing in the biology of either the African elephant or the marula fruit to support the stories, he asserts.
"People just want to believe in drunken elephants," Morris said.
Eating Rotten Fruit?
The marula tree, a member of the same family as the mango, grows widely in Africa. Its sweet, yellow fruit is used for making jam, wine, beer, and a liqueur called Amarula.
But the first flaw in the drunken-elephant theory is that it's unlikely that an elephant would eat the fruit if it were rotten, Morris says.
Elephants eat the fruit right off the tree, not when they're rotten on the ground, he explained.
"This a largely self-evident fact," he said, "since elephants will even push over trees to get the fruit off the tree, even when rotten fruit is on the ground."
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