Searching shows this question came up earlier this year. Colibri provided a link which quoted a zookeeper. Also, Snopes claims this is false.
Mythbusters went to some sort of preserve in Africa, thinking that domesticated elephants found in zoos and circuses would probably be used to them in ways a wild elephant would not. (Although Jamie petting the elephant at the end shows that these elephants were not truly wild).
Anyway, they stuck the mouse inside a cavity in a ball of elephant dung, then pulled a string to release the mouse once an elephant wandered by. This site provides a clip from the show:
Now, the elephants didn’t react cartoon-style, but the exposed mouse did seem to stop the elephants in their tracks, and they took an alternate route away from the mouse.
Missing from the clip, but which was shown on the show, was the test where they tried moving the dung-ball without the mouse (testing the theory that it was the dung-ball movement which spooked the elephants). The elephants didn’t seem to be concerned with the moving dung ball. This was one of the most surprising mythbusters results I’ve seen.
That was a surprising episode. I remember expounding to my daughter before the test, how silly this one was. It was a ridiculous myth to test. Come on, what other cartoon physics are they going to test? Using “Hair Tonic” to stop a rabbit from falling?
Well OK, the elephant shied away, it was probably just the dung moving.
Wow, just wow, I was more shocked than even Adam appeared to be.
They wanted to be as far away as possible and use stuff which would naturally be there. That way the results were more accurate. If a person had let the mouse go for instance I would have been sure it was the person the elephant was avoiding. Same thing with unnatural things like metal cages.
That was so weird though. Youtube has the moving dung alone part of the experiment if you want to look. Jamie and Adam talked about it before it aired on their touring q&a, it was nice to see. I was shocked with the result though. Damn.
Have it descend from the sky in a parachute, I don’t know- it just seemed to me that something crawling out of a pile of shit might skew the results- I’d be a bit taken aback to have seen that myself, and I’m not scared of mice.
And for all we know, the elephant avoided it because it thought it was covered in shit
Given the limited number of trials it is really difficult to make a definitive conclusions. Now if they ran this experiment 1000 times with many different elephants, we might have a conclusion. Still, this is enough to want to examine it further.
I don’t have sound at work but perhaps the elephant was simply startled at a small white moving object which was unfamiliar? Even the mice running around zoos and circuses aren’t lab white. Why not use a standard grey/brown field mouse?
A quick run through Google suggests that elephant eyesight ranges from lousy to mediocre so perhaps the white mouse “popped” more than usual dung fauna and was more startling?
I’d want to see the test repeated with a field mouse to take anything from it. Like I said, even the stereotypical rodents you’d find scaring elephants at the circus/zoo aren’t white except in the cartoons.
Surprised me as well. Maybe elephants are afraid of cliches? One could, for example, dye an elephant pink in it’s sleep, and observe the reaction. Next, one could observe the reaction of an elephant in my pajamas.