Alcohol is pretty important in human culture. We’ve collectively been drinking it for thousands of years, and it’s probably not going to stop any time soon. But are humans the only species that like a tipple after a long day?
There are rumors, legends, and even news reports about tipsy animals causing more havoc than a bunch of students on spring break. So, how true are they? Let’s find out.
African elephants are one of the most persistently rumored alcoholic animals. Supposedly they get drunk by eating the rotting and fermenting fruit of the marula tree—which is used by humans to make a liquor called Amarula.
While these reports have been around since the 1800s, they sadly don’t hold much gin. First, according to National Geographic, they eat the fruit directly from the tree, even going so far as to knock trees over to get the sweet delicacies when there is rotting fruit lying on the ground (which could explain some of the videos of elephant delinquency in the vicinity of the trees). Second, they pass through the elephant’s digestive system too quickly to ferment internally, as some drunk pachyderm purists propose. And finally, elephants are gigantic. National Geographic reckons that it would take half a gallon of pure ethanol to get an elephant even-a-little-bit sloshed. To get that quantity of booze from marula fruit, they’d have to chomp through 1,400 of them in relatively quick order.
Sadly, this one seems to be a myth.
The other headline hard-partier of the animal kingdom is the moose (or elk in Scandinavia). Every few years, a credulous news article reports on the antics of an antlered alcoholic after they’d (supposedly) eaten too many rotting and fermented apples—one even got stuck in a tree.
— AussieAnnie (@aussieannie_au) September 29, 2014
Sadly, Swedish scientists are here to kill the party. Moose, like elephants, are simply too large to be affected by a few fermented apples. A bull can weigh up to 1,600 pounds. Their bad behavior around town is more likely to be a result of habituation rather than a few-a-day habit.
The Real Booze Hounds
While elephants and moose don’t indulge in a few quiet ones, there are a few animals that do.
Nat Geo reports that butterflies, moths, and insects all enjoy the odd bit of booze, to the point that entomologists (scientists who study insects) frequently use it to bait traps. Fruit flies are even known to self-medicate if they get rejected; one study found that fruit flies who had not mated preferred food with alcohol in it while ones that had did not.
Birds, like the Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) also aren’t immune to a bit of temptation. While elk and elephant need to consume ludicrous quantities of fermented fruit to get drunk, birds only need a few berries. Most are easily able to shake off the effects, but some occasionally need a bit of time in the drunk tank.
The real lushes of the animal kingdom, however, have developed a tolerance—to the point that they regularly consume alcohol and show no adverse effects. The pen-tailed tree shrew, native to Malaysia, eats the nectar from the flowers of the Bertram palm; it has a natural ABV of up to 3.8%, or about the same as a lite beer.
Similarly, some species of bats eat loads of fermented fruits and show no ill effects—despite having blood alcohol counts over three times the legal US driving limit.
So, while stories of large mammals getting drunk are likely false, there are animals out there that consume alcohol, whether it affects them or not, just by eating fermenting fruit.
And who knows—maybe a moose will one day manage to find enough apples to really get sloshed.