A Moment of Science

Larger Animals Have Slower Reflexes

According to a new study, larger animals tend to react much more slowly to physical stimuli than smaller animals.

An elephant teeters on an edge to reach a treat.

Photo: Paraflyer

On the nervous system super highway, sending a message from an elephant's tail to his brain is quite a trek.

The bigger they are, the slower they swat.

According to a new study published Proceedings of the Royal Society B, larger animals tend to react much more slowly to physical stimuli than smaller animals.

When scientists tested the reflexes of an elephant and a shrew, they found that the shrews response time was 100 times faster than that of its larger test companion.

The reason?

The velocity of messages sent through nerves maxes out around 180 feet per second, so those messages have a long distance to travel in an elephant.

What keeps elephants from surviving attacks from the spritely little critters of the world, scientists theorize, is their capacity for foresight and risk avoidance.
Read more:

  • Big Animals, Slower Reflexes (New York Times)
  • Scaling of sensorimotor control in terrestrial mammals (study)
Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

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