If you had to bet on a full-grown elephant or the average human to win a drinking contest, who would you put your money on? Well, if you bet on the elephant like I would have, both you and I would lose our money. Most of us probably think that with the elephant’s large body size, they would have a higher alcohol tolerance like it is with humans. So, how could a human drink an elephant under the table? A new study found that elephants, unlike humans, lack an essential gene necessary to break down alcohol. 

There has been a long-standing myth that elephants become tipsy after eating marula fruit, a relative of the mango that produces alcohol. For generations, people have told stories of staggering and aggressive (tipsy?) elephants after they eat these fruits. However, based on an elephant’s body size and human tolerance equations, it would be mathematically impossible for an elephant to get drunk by eating fruits. However, scientists recently conducted a genetic study that supports these stories.  Humans have a gene that codes for an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme breaks down alcohol, rendering it non-toxic and conferring a certain amount of “alcohol tolerance”. Elephants, on the other hand, lack the gene that codes for alcohol dehydrogenase and have a reduced ability to break down alcohol in their system. Therefore, despite their massive size, elephants are light-weights compared to humans.

Now armed with this new information, let’s try again. Would a human or a tree shrew (imagine a chipmunk sized squirrel) win a drinking contest? Would you be surprised to know that a tree shrew would win? While the reason for this is still not understood, it has become clear that knowledge about humans must be carefully used when applied to other mammals (especially when using them in scientific research). 

Managing Correspondent: Jenny Zheng

Press article: Why mammals like elephants and armadillos might get drunk easily. ScienceNews

Original Journal Articles: Genetic evidence of widespread variation in ethanol metabolism among mammals: revisiting the ‘myth’ of natural intoxication. Biology Letters; Myth, Marula, and Elephant: An Assessment of Voluntary Ethanol Intoxication of the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) Following Feeding on the Fruit of the Marula Tree (Sclerocarya birrea). Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 

Image Credit: Flickr

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