December 7, 2005

Elephants Drunk on Marula Fruit? Study Says No Way

JOHANNESBURG -- It is an enduring image of the South African bush: elephants staggering across the veld after gorging themselves on the delectable marula fruit, which ferments into an alcohol that sends the great beasts reeling.

But a study to be published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology argues that while elephants enjoy the fruit, it does not make them drunk.

Marula is the key ingredient in a popular South African cream liqueur.

"Elephants display many behavioural characteristics viewed as positive traits in humans, often causing us to identify with them in anthropomorphic ways," says the study by biologists from the University of Bristol.

"The tipsy pachyderm a view bolstered perhaps by a mutual desire for the fruits of the marula tree."

Elephants gather around marula trees when the fruit is in season but prefer to strip it from branches rather than gather it from the ground, where it ferments.

Fallen marula fruit may naturally ferment to an ethanol content of approximately 3 percent after three or four days.

The authors argue that even if an elephant gorged itself on fallen marula fruit it would be "hard-pressed" to get drunk.

"... 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," write the authors.

The authors acknowledge that the massive mammals have a taste for alcohol -- they just dispute the widely held notion that the marula fruit goes to their head.

"Elephants indisputably like booze, especially Asian elephants where we have many reports of them getting into rice-wine stores and drinking the stuff," lead author Steve Morris told Reuters by phone from his UK office.

But Morris also said that reported "tipsy" behavior in elephants and other animals may stem from some other intoxicant besides alcohol.