Despite what you may have seen in cartoons, elephants aren't afraid of mice. However, researchers have discovered that there's an even smaller enemy that can make pachyderms run for cover: bees.
African elephants apparently find bees so terrifying that they have developed a unique warning sound to alert others about the threat. It took some extensive work for Oxford University researchers to uncover this fact, since elephants are capable of making a wide range of sounds for different reasons, such as the arrival of a new calf.
The researchers copied a specific sound that African elephants sometimes make -- known among the team as a "bee rumble" -- and played it to 10 families of elephants. Most of them fled in terror upon hearing the sound, despite not having seen a single bee.
"It not only provides the first demonstration that elephants use alarm calls but also shows that these may have very specific meanings," said Karen McComb, a behavioral ecologist at England's University of Sussex.
While the threat from bees is clear -- they can sting elephants around the eyes and inside their trunks -- the researchers are also interested in whether elephants make similar sounds to warn of other potential dangers.
Extra elephant facts:
- The rock hyrax, a small, furry mammal found in Africa and the Middle East, is the elephant's nearest living relative; it's also known as the rock rabbit.
- While not as scary as bees, ants also bother elephants. They sometimes avoid eating plants that harbor ants in order to prevent the insects from getting into their sensitive trunks.
- The African elephant has the largest brain of any land animal, weighing up to 12 pounds (5.4 kg).