Beautiful nature is filled with big beasts that are not always dangerous and predatory. Herbivores, for example, are animals that do not eat the meat of other animals, but instead, they eat fruits, grass, or leaves of the trees! While some of these animals can be quite huge to us, like the giraffe or the elephant or hippopatamus, they’re usually thought to be harmless and kind and quite docile. However, scientists have found that like us, smaller animals are often scared of big things regardless of how harmless they are.
In a study conducted in three neighboring nature reserves in Estawini, Africa, scientists wanted to look at how ungulates react to the presence of apex predators vs. big herbivores that are usually not that dangerous. Ungulates are hoofed mammals that mainly eat grass. The three most common ungulates in the area are the Impala, the Nyala, and the Wildebeest, which spend most of their time grazing on the fields. The big herbivore that the scientists focused on is the African Bush Elephant, and the apex predator is the leopard. What these scientists did is they played the sounds of the African Bush Elephant and the Leopard through big speakers planted in the nature reserve and recorded the animals on video via cameras hidden in the trees. The scientists played videos of the ungulates reacting to the sound recordings and recorded which of them ran away and which of them stayed when they heard the sound of the elephant and the leopard. The leopard is the top and most common predator in these nature preserves. However, when the scientists analyzed the video recordings, they found that the animals ran just as frequently, or maybe just a bit less, when they heard the sound of the elephant vs. when they heard the sound of the leopard. To make sure that the ungulates were not just running from any sounds coming out of the big speakers, they played the sounds of birds and recorded how the animals reacted to those sounds. The animals did not react to the bird sounds, so it must be that they are scared of elephants just as much as they are of the dangerous leopard.
So why is it that those ungulates are as scared of those beautiful giants as they are of the leopard that actually eats them? Our scientist friends had a couple of guesses for that. The first guess they had is that some of these ungulates share a habitat with the elephants and compete with them for food. These ungulates would then be more likely to be scared of elephants because the elephants can eat their food or fight with them over it, and you do not want to fight with an elephant! The second guess is that while elephants are usually harmless, they can be pretty aggressive when it comes to water. If elephants go to waterholes to drink and there are already ungulates there, they tend to kick them out and maybe hurt them in the process.
But these two guesses have a problem: some ungulate species do not have to share a habitat with the elephants and so do not have to compete for either food or water, yet they still get scared of them. So, the third guess is that ungulates, and possibly other mammals as well, tend to fear all big moving things regardless of how harmful or dangerous these giants are. They tend to have an innate fear of animals that can hurt them, and it does not matter if they actually do it or not. This is supported by the fact that like us, there are some chances an animal is not willing to take. This does not mean that these animals are any more safe if they avoid the elephants, it only means that they will avoid them because they are not willing to find out if the elephants will hurt them or not. So maybe there is a reason why some of us are scared of big things!
Fletcher, R. J., O’Brien, A., Hall, T. F., Jones, M., Potash, A. D., Kruger, L., Phumlile Simelane, Roques, K. G., Monadjem, A., & McCleery, R. A. (2023). Frightened of giants: fear responses to elephants approach that of predators. Biology Letters, 19(10). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2023.0202