Do moose (and other animals) eat fermented fruit to get drunk?
Are all those drunk animals on YouTube actually drunk? Zoologist Lucy Cooke examines what's really going on when animals go, er, wild.
September is a busy month for the Swedish police force. It is the season of falling fruit, and for police officer Albin Naverberg, that means drunk moose on the loose. “Just as humans like wine, the moose like fermented fruits,” he told me as we drove across Stockholm to investigate the latest of their rowdy misdemeanors.
Moose aren’t the only animals that have been accused of getting plastered on fermented fruit. Newspapers abound with stories of all types of inebriated beasts from pissed parrots falling out of trees in northern Australia to orangutans getting blitzed in Borneo on the sickly liquor produced by overripe durian. There was even a report of a badger in Germany disrupting traffic by lurching around a main road after allegedly overindulging on alcoholic cherries. Most of these stories are purely anecdotal, and about as reliable as the word of a drunk moose.
African elephants have long been alleged to get wasted on the fermented fruit of the marula tree, which according to an old hunting bible from 1875 makes them behave like teenagers hitting the town center on a Saturday night. They “become quite tipsy, staggering about, playing huge antics, screaming so as to be heard miles off, and not seldom having tremendous fights.”
A natural history documentary entitled Animals Are Beautiful People achieved notoriety in 1974 for capturing the drunken antics of elephants, ostriches and scores of other animals on camera. The film absurdly anthropomorphized its subjects as it showed scene after scene of them getting loaded on marula and then reeling around with hooded eyes and wobbly legs, all set to a Benny Hill soundtrack. The footage was sufficiently compelling to have found a second life on YouTube, where the video has been watched by more than two million people.
The first person to delve into the truth of this story was the legendary psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel. As associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, he spent a career experimenting with the effects of alcohol and drugs—mostly on human volunteers he called his “psychonauts,” but also making the occasional foray into the wider animal kingdom. He has given monkeys cocaine chewing gum and claims to have taught pigeons “how to tell us what they were seeing while under the influence of LSD.” To which the somewhat mundane answer was: blue triangles.
In 1984, Siegel undertook a significantly more treacherous study into what happens when you give a group of captive elephants “with no history of alcohol use” access to unlimited alcohol. He discovered they were more than happy to drink the equivalent of thirty-five cans of beer a day, enough to partake in “inappropriate behaviors” such as wrapping their trunks around themselves, leaning against things with their eyes closed and dropping their trunkhold on each others’ tails, which Siegel described as “the trained elephants” version of walking in a straight line. Playing bartender to a herd of elephants was not without its risks. A large bull named Congo chased Siegel’s jeep after the professor tried to cut off his beer, attacking Siegel with the empty barrel. On another occasion, Siegel had to break up a fight between Congo and a sober rhino that happened to wander into the elephant’s favorite waterhole at the wrong moment. “I knew a life-threatening clash was imminent.” Siegel decided to drive his jeep between the two animals, only narrowly avoiding becoming part of the fight himself. “I should have known better,” he wrote later.
Siegel’s rather whimsical conclusion from his elaborate drunken circus was that the elephants did indeed drink until drunk, doing so perhaps to forget “the environmental stress” of their ever-shrinking homeland and the competition for food. But just because elephants can get drunk when supplied with a steady stream of alcohol, doesn’t mean they are getting similarly wasted on fermented fruits in the wild. While attending a physiology conference in South Africa, a group
of British biologists from Bristol University took a more sober scientific approach to the investigation than had Siegel, and instead of dosing elephants irresponsibly with unlimited booze, they used statistics to find their answer. They created various mathematical models based on an average elephant’s weight and the alcohol content of the marula fruit and calculated that an elephant would have to eat marula at 400 percent its normal feeding rate to get looped. “These models were highly biased in favour of inebriation,” the researchers said, “but even so failed to show that elephants can ordinarily become drunk.”
The biologists branded the marula story as yet another zoological myth driven by our desire to humanize animals. The boozed-up stars of Animals Are Beautiful People had, it seems, been injected with veterinary anesthetic in order to elicit their woozy behavior. “People just want to believe in drunken elephants” was the researchers’ final conclusion.
The same would seem to be true of the moose. One Swedish professor told me that there had never been a test confirming high blood alcohol in an elk. “At this point, I think the idea rather reflects our Nordic-Germanic problematic relationship to alcohol.”
Is that moose drunk, or just sugared up? (Image: Big Think)
Rick Sinnott, the Canadian biologist who spent many years trailing the infamous Buzzwinkle around Anchorage, told me that he suspects a more likely explanation is that the moose are suffering from apple acidosis, brought on by consuming an unnatural amount of sugar-rich
food. This causes a buildup of lactic acid in their gut, a condition that can result in symptoms that include dilated pupils, a struggle to stand and severe depression—all of which sounds remarkably like the early naturalists’ portraits of the moose. It seems the animal they were de-
scribing was neither alcoholic nor melancholic, but instead suffering from a case of acute indigestion.
Which is not to say no moose has ever been blotto. Indeed, there appears to have been at least one—a pet belonging to the sixteenth-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose accurate pretelescopic observations laid the foundations of modern astronomy.
Tycho was an unusual character. He lost his nose as a student in a duel over maths and was forced thereafter to wear a false one fashioned from brass. He built his very own castle, complete with underground laboratory, on the island of Hven and invited the great and the good
to join him there for lavish parties. There they were entertained by a psychic dwarf called Jepp and Tycho’s pet moose, which, according to the astronomer’s diaries, was an exceedingly good sport: “It prospers, runs about, dances and is of good cheer... just like a dog.”
Though he was clearly very fond of his pet, Tycho agreed to gift it to his patron in an effort to increase the astronomer’s standing in society. It died en route, at a castle in Landskrona, where it was alleged to have consumed a quantity of beer before taking a fatal tumble down
Perhaps this was the only case of a genuinely drunken moose. But it’s worth considering that a sober moose might have had some trouble going down the stairs as well.
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
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