Dec. 31, 2012 at 6:23 PM ET
The latest "stupid animal tricks" video to go viral shows an elephant at a Thai nature park nabbing a woman's smartphone and swallowing it down, followed by the recovery of the phone when it's heard ringing from a pile of elephant dung. Is it fake or real?
There are the usual signs of a hoax — including the incredibly low quality of the video, and the staginess of the reactions to the loss of the phone and its unappetizing rediscovery. But beyond that, there are the scientific questions: Do elephants really go for foreign objects like phones? How long does it take for something to make its way from one end of the elephant to the other? Would a smartphone still work after passing all the way through?
For answers, we went to Murray E. Fowler, professor emeritus at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-editor of a textbook titled "Biology, Medicine and Surgery of Elephants." It turns out that Fowler has some personal experience with the ins and outs of elephant feeding habits.
He recalled a time when he drove a van full of students to a zoo, put the key in the pocket of his coveralls, and then paid an up-close visit to one of the elephants. When it came time to get back in the van ... no key. Fowler had to retrieve a spare from the school. "About four days later, they found the key in a stool sample from the elephant," Fowler said. He figures the elephant must have snagged the key out of his coveralls, or picked it up where he dropped it.
Based on that experience, plus Fowler's professional knowledge of an elephant's innards, he says it's possible that the animal could take an iPhone and swallow it. "I can verify that," Fowler said. But you couldn't expect to recover the phone from the poop on the same day. On the contrary: Experts say it takes between 18 hours and several days for an elephant's alimentary canal to do its work. (Fun fact: Elephants digest and absorb only 44 percent of what they eat.)
If that's the case, the woman would have to come back later to pick up her lost item, presumably after it has been found and cleaned up. Moreover, it's highly questionable whether the darn thing would work after all that time — and not just because the battery ran down. "There'll be acids and various and sundry enzymatic situations," Fowler said.
Bottom line? Even if you presume that the video is not a hoax from start to finish, the idea that you could recover a working mobile phone after it's worked its way through the digestive tract smells fishy ... or in this case, elephant-y. To me, the mere idea of sticking the phone into the dung so that you can pull it out for the sake of a YouTube video is creepy enough. But what do you think?
Update for 1:30 p.m. ET Jan. 2: Bruce Schulte, a biologist at Western Kentucky University who serves as an adviser to the International Elephant Foundation, weighed in on the matter in an email:
"My guess is the video is a scam. I communicated with a colleague of mine, Heidi Riddle, who has worked with elephants for decades to corroborate my impression. The Metro Washington Park Zoo (now The Oregon Zoo) once had elephants ingest a very small thermometer in a protective case to track temperature changes of females related to estrus. The elephants were trained to find the device after it was excreted. Eleven to 46 hours is the typical transit time, and about a day is commonly used as the estimate. Variability in transit rate is common in mammals (see Clauss et al. 2007 Oikos), so the range you mention is reasonable, depending on forage type, species, age, etc. It is unlikely that a mobile phone would be ingested, and if so, that it would handle the environment of a digestive tract and remain functional."
More stupid video tricks:
Hat tip to Gizmodo / DVICE / Ubergizmo. While you're thinking, here's a better-produced "Elephant-Meets-Smartphone" video.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.