Animals Like To Get Drunk Too: Boorish Boars, Smashed Voles, And Intoxicated Moose Gangs

 @rpalmerscience on September 10 2013 12:35 PM

Recently, a feral pig went hog wild after downing three six-packs of beer, causing a stir in the town of Port Hedland in Western Australia. The animal behaved swinishly after it stole the brews from a campsite, scattering trash and getting belligerent with livestock.

“Some other people camped right on the river… saw him being chased around their vehicle by a cow," one camper told the Guardian. (If the boorish boar was actually trying to go cow-tipping, it would have failed: As we recently learned from Modern Farmer, it’s pretty much physically impossible for anyone – pig or human, drunk or sober -- to shove a cow over.)

Pigs aren’t the only animals with a boozing habit. Moose (known abroad as elks) are known throughout Scandinavia for acting up after eating a few too many rotten apples. (Rotten fruit is one of the most natural ways of getting a buzz on. Given time and the right conditions, the sugars in fruit may ferment and produce alcohol.) In Sweden, one tipsy moose made headlines in 2011 after it stumbled into a tree and got stuck. The local fire and rescue department had to use a winch to bend the apple tree down to free the inebriated cervid.

"Moose are attracted by the apple trees, and in the autumn when the apples have fallen off the trees, we normally have at least one of these cases of intoxication,” Gothenburg fireman Anders Gardhagen told CNN. “These apples, which ferment in their bellies, aren't part of their natural food, so they can get quite angry from this drunkenness.”

In fact, unfortunately for the Swedes, misbehaving moose are starting to form drunken gangs. In August, Radio Sweden reported an incident in Varmdo, east of Stockholm, where five drunken moose refused to let a man into his garden.

“Sensibly enough, the (moose) left the scene when police arrived,” Stockholm police spokesperson Albin Naverberg wrote.

Not all drunken animals behave as badly as Swedish moose. The pen-tailed tree shrew, which dwells in the rainforests of Malaysia, might be a pint-sized little mammal, but it has a barrel-sized appetite for booze, with a tolerance to match. Despite the fact that it downs massive amounts of fermented palm nectar – the equivalent of about nine small glasses of wine, according to a 2008 paper examining the tree shrews’ drinking habit – every day, scientists studying the pen-tailed tree shrew never once saw one stumbling home or getting into a drunken fights with the slow loris living on the next tree over.

"They seem to have developed some type of mechanism to deal with that high level of alcohol and not get drunk," University of Western Ontario microbiologist Marc-Andre Lachance told LiveScience in 2008. "The amount of alcohol we're talking about is huge — it's several times the legal limit in most countries. So if we can figure out why these animals are able to cope with it, perhaps it could be used to develop medicines to help people deal with alcohol poisoning."

Human scientists use animals’ taste for alcohol to learn about our own drinking behavior. We can use genetic manipulation to create mice with an insatiable desire to seek alcohol – or we can just take advantage of some rodents’ natural boozing habits. The prairie vole turns out to be particularly prone to getting soused: Given the choice between plain water and spiked, they’ll pick an alcoholic drink, and they prefer something with an ABV of about 6 percent, on par with a lot of beers. In 2010, Oregon Health and Science University scientists discovered that the prairie vole is a social drinker: When siblings were kept in cages together, they began downing much more alcohol than when they drank alone.

But not all stories of drunken animals are actually true. Take the case of the African elephant and the marula tree. Popular lore has it that jonesing pachyderms will eat the rotting mango-like fruit of the marula to, well, see pink elephants. But in 2006, a group of scientists led by University of Bristol biologist Steve Morris examined the feasibility of this supposedly elephantine bender. In a paper in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, the team outlined several pieces of evidence that undercut the “drunk elephant” story. For one thing, field observations show that elephants tend to avoid rotten marula fruit.

"This a largely self-evident fact," Morris told National Geographic, "since elephants will even push over trees to get the fruit off the tree, even when rotten fruit is on the ground."

Also, all sorts of animals love the marula fruit, so when it gets ripe, there’s a mad dash to pick it and scarf it down right away, leaving little time for fruits to lie around and ferment. Some suggest that fresher fruit ferments inside the elephant’s digestive tract, but Morris and his team pointed out that elephants pass their food within 46 hours or less – not enough time for fermentation to take place. Plus, those sugars that might turn into alcohol are already being broken down by the elephant’s digestive system.

If, somehow, an elephant were looking for a fix from the marula tree, it would have to eat a lot of rotten fruit to feel a buzz. Morris and his team calculated that a pachyderm would get drunk after consuming about a half-gallon of alcohol, which would require about 7.1 gallons of marula juice, or 1,400 fermented fruits, all at once.

So, to reiterate: If somehow you end up on a zoo booze cruise, don’t try to go drink for drink with a tree shrew, be wary of belligerent moose and pigs, and leave your keys with the elephant.

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