Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?

Drunk elephants and tipsy squirrels – we’ve all seen the videos and articles claiming the animal kingdom can cause as much of a ruckus after a drink as people can. But do animals really get ‘drunk’, to what we believe the word to mean, or not? If so, how does this happen and is it done intentionally? How does it differ to how people become intoxicated? The short answer is yes, they do get drunk, but if you’re interested in knowing the why’s, who’s, and how’s then read on.

What Does ‘Drunk’ Mean?

Let’s consider how we as a society define the term ‘drunk’ and whether it’s applicable to animals at all. To be drunk is to be under the dissociative effects of alcohol. If you’re drunk your brain starts to function at a slower rate than usual meaning you are less alert and more incoherent. You may become overly emotional, aggressive, sick, and uncoordinated. Drinking alcohol is usually considered to be relaxing but when drunk to excess, it causes more damage than good.

Alcohol is created by fermenting natural resources such as fruits and barley. The type we drink is ethanol, created by fermenting grains, fruits, or other sources of natural sugar. Fermentation is a chemical process in which molecules like glucose are broken down anaerobically (this is when something does not need oxygen for growth).

Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?
Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?

The process of fermentation can of course happen naturally and usually takes place when fruit begins to rot. As it’s a natural occurrence that humans have just tried to speed up for commercial use, it happens in the wild all the time. This means animals have immediate and constant access to products that cause intoxication. But just because they have access to it, do they use it and therefore become intoxicated? In short, yes. Both purposefully and accidentally. Have a read on to find which of your favourite animals do.

What Animals get Intoxicated and How?

There have been numerous incidents of different species in the animal kingdom becoming intoxicated all around the world from tiny insects to enormous elephants! Some of these animals intentionally seek out intoxication, others accidentally become so when eating, and others avoid intoxicating foods like the plague. The reason for almost all instances of intoxication in the animal kingdom is usually down to what an animal eats. As fruits rot or ferment, the natural sugars convert to alcohol. This happens naturally and is a process that people use when making wine, beer, cider, and other alcoholic drinks.

Let’s take a look at the natural creation of alcohol and delve a bit deeper into what animals are enjoying it, how they do so, and the effect it can have on them.

Insects

For starters, insects love a drink or two! They’re probably more likely than any other animal to be attracted to alcohol which is why you might see them hovering around beer cans or abandoned glasses left in the sun. They’re more often than not attracted to beer but really any sticky or sweet beverage could reel them in.

When an insect gets intoxicated (like a butterfly or a fruit fly) they act shockingly like people do after a few too many drinks! They’re tiny, tiny creatures so will feel the effect of alcohol almost instantaneously and after consuming next to nothing. First they’ll become extremely hyperactive before becoming disoriented and sleepy. What lightweights!

We have to question why insects are attracted to alcohol and why they’d drink it in the first place. There is actually a scientific explanation, I promise! It’s not just because they love a pint. It’s thought that male insects are more likely to drink alcohol as it boosts their spermatophores that they give to females during mating.

Higher levels of spermatophores means there is a higher chance of successful reproduction. Studies showed that unmated male insects opted for food containing alcohol compared to males that were already mated so it must have some impact.

This doesn’t necessarily mean intoxication has a positive effect on all insects though! Studies found that when honeybees are exposed to alcohol, it has the ability to affect their foraging and social behaviours in a negative manner. This means that many bees actually become quite aggressive, like people, after too much alcohol. The effects may last up to 48 hours on small creatures such as these and disrupt their natural cycle. Intoxication isn’t always harmless!

Elephants

The gentle giants of the animal kingdom are no stranger to alcohol or intoxication either. Interestingly, elephants get drunk very, very quickly which is a surprise based on the sheer size of them. This is because elephants actually lack the genetic mutation that causes them to process alcohol so they react to its intoxicating effects much quicker than other animals might do.

Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?
Marula Fruit Ferment and Taste Tart

The mutation is called A294 V and it’s absence in elephants was discovered by Canadian scientists from the University of Calgary in 2020. The ADH7 gene contains a protein that helps break down ethanol. Elephants do still have this gene but it’s not as functional as it is in other animals making it so the species struggle to break down alcohol as quickly.

The inability to process alcohol doesn’t stop these enormous beasts from enjoying it though. African elephants have been known to feed tirelessly on the fallen fruit of the marula tree, despite its intoxicating effects. It leaves them in a woozy, sedated state and some studies saw elephants become rather aggressive after ingesting the fermented fruit. Fully ripe marula fruit are tart, with a pleasant sweet-and-sour taste.

Other animals with a similar tolerance to alcohol as elephants include horses, guinea pigs, and narwhals. However these animals aren’t known to ingest things such as sugary fruits and nectar that create ethanol so aren’t very likely to feel the effects of intoxication. Eating fermented fruits is something elephants can’t avoid doing as it’s their natural food source.

Bats

Like elephants, bats also rely on fermented fruit and berries to sustain themselves and therefore can also become intoxicated from them. However they don’t suffer from experiencing the same effects as elephants do, or at least not to the same extent. Quite ironic considering the size differences!

Several species of bats have been witnessed to become under the influence in both central and south America. As bats regularly consume fermented fruits and nectar to feed themselves, they may be intoxicated more often than you think. Despite this, they still manage to function pretty well all things considered.

They manage to fly and use their built in ‘sonar’ (Sound Navigation and Ranging) just as well intoxicated as they do sober. That’s rather impressive if you ask me. Similarly, there have been cases of tree shrews in Malaysia consuming as large quantities of alcohol as bats. They are equally as unaffected by it, presumably from years of evolving to tolerate it.

A study by Brock Fenton (a biologist graduate from the University of Western Ontario) took place in 2006 to determine the effect of alcohol on bats. This study had over 100 bats of 6 different species, giving groups of them either sugar water or ethanol to study and compare their reactions. The study found that the bats which were given ethanol had a blood alcohol content 0f 0.3%. For reference, the BAC limit in both the UK and each state in the USA is 0.08%. That should be some pretty drunk bats.

Dolphins

My absolute favourite animal on this list is dolphins who just can’t get enough of being ‘intoxicated’! They purposely seem to be seeking out intoxication as a form of entertainment unlike the other animals on this list who tend to rely on the intoxicating sources for survival. In 2014 a BBC one series aired called ‘Dolphins: Spy in the pod’ that showed younger dolphins passing around a pufferfish between them and becoming intoxicated.

Science has proven that pufferfish release a nerve toxin when harassed and the dolphins were seen utilising just that. Zoologist of the show Rob Piley explained to The Sunday Times that the dolphins were ‘purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating,’ leading them to a ‘trance like state.’ Dolphins are a predatory species and eat many kinds of small fish, squid, and crustaceans. When you consider this, they could very easily avoid pufferfish because of its alternating impact but choose not to do so.

Do Wild Animals Get Drunk? Dolphins Eat Puffafish For a Natural High
Dolphins Eat Puffafish For a Natural Intoxication

Rob Piley continued to explain that the dolphins would chew the pufferfish gently to release the toxin, passing it between them, before beginning to act ‘most peculiar.’ After this they floated to the surface, ‘hanging around…as if fascinated with their own reflections.’ Clearly they’re not just eating the pufferfish and experiencing the effects of the toxin, they’re seeking out to do so.

The behaviour of dolphins in this case was further looked into and it was decided that they probably weren’t high in any serious or mind alternating sense. This is because tetrodotoxin doesn’t pass the blood barrier and therefore can’t alter perception or enhancement in any way at all. Instead the dolphins probably just experienced a numb, tingly sensation.

It would have caused the dolphins to become lightheaded, causing a similar high to what people may experience when taking THC which is found in marijuana. Either way, how hilarious is that?

Lemurs

There have been instances in Madagascar where lemurs are eating and getting high off of giant millipedes. Lemurs are vital pollinators and largely feed in the dark on fruits and nectar. However some lemurs have in the past hunted and eaten giant millipedes. These millipedes can be deadly as they contain cyanide.

The reason lemurs may do this is they can then rub their own saliva on their fur to ward off dangerous insects like mosquitoes that may pass on malaria. Ingesting the millipedes also seemed to send the lemurs into a trance like state, leaving them incredibly sleepy. Whether this is just a negative side effect they have to endure or something they enjoy, we may never know…

Birds and Other Small Animals

Like many other animals on this list, birds and the likes depend on foraging for fruits to sustain and keep themselves fed. Therefore they might not intentionally become intoxicated but do so for survival purposes. Quite often birds tend to get rather inebriated when they’re stocking up for winter which can result in some pretty bad fliers!

As the winter frost first settles, it can cause remaining fruits and berries to ferment at a quicker rate than they normally would. As small creatures such as birds, squirrels, and other berry eaters try to forage and stock up in preparation for migration and hibernation, they can get more than a little bit woozy as an effect of overeating. This may explain a few occasions where you might have seen a very wobbly bird taking flight. He’s OK, just a little bit tipsy.

While most of the time consuming fermented fruits doesn’t have a lasting or serious effect on these animals, there have unfortunately been some instances of the latter. 12 young blackbirds were found dead in August 2011 and further study from veterinary researchers found in the post mortem that the death was more than likely caused by consuming too many fermented berries. This likely resulted in them flying or falling to their deaths.

Moose

Another fruit eating animal is the moose, just a little bit larger than the birds we were talking about before. Moose tend to eat fruits, twigs, and leaves. There aren’t many cases of intoxication in moose as they’re large animals and eat a large selection of shrubs and fruits. However one incident in Sweden 2011 left a gigantic moose stuck in a tree after a few too many fermented apples!

Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?
Moose – Do Wild Animals Get Drunk?

A member of the fire department who heroically came to the moose’s rescue said they usually had a couple cases of intoxicated moose a year after Autumn hit and the apples started to fall from the trees. As they’re not part of the moose’s natural or usual diet, they can have a bit of quick effect on them. Don’t worry though, no moose’s ended up seriously harmed!

Now we’ve had a further look into the matter, we can take away that there are all kinds of animals that become intoxicated, whether intentionally or not. Big and small, the animal kingdom is full of all kinds of creatures that can be affected by this incredibly natural process. And other than some unfortunate and one of instances, the animals generally seem to be OK from the amount of ethanol they consume. This just leaves us with some very funny videos!

Drunk Animals in Literature

At dawn, the sky was rose pink. A lone gray cloud trembled and reeled toward the horizon. Moho (bush baby) sat on a three-foot tall rock aside his marula tree like a plump owl surveying his wooded domain. Wide eyed and chief of that place. He combed fruit stains from his fur with his grooming claw. Framed with pink circles, his stare was fixed on the rising sun.

What enemies do you be having – stinking hyenas? asked Moho ignoring his question, standing tall and springing like a frog and grabbing the lowest branch of the marula tree, several feet above him.

Thunder. You forgot already? barked Papio, staring up doubtfully.

Did you be telling me dat last night? Marulas do sometimes be make me forgetful, he (the bush baby) admitted, scratching his temple with his grooming finger.

E.G Price, The Zambezi Allies

Among Sources used are:

https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/do-animals-get-drunk

https://www.audubon.org/news/what-happens-when-birds-get-drunk

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/09/08/sweden.drunken.moose/

https://www.britannica.com/science/fermentation

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