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Many animals consume some alcohol in their foods, but these shrews take it to a whole new level!

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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Humans are far from the only animals that drink booze. But, like us, they usually pay for it after. That poor Swedish moose is never going to live down that whole drunkenly-getting-stuck-in-a-tree thing.

But there’s a mysterious little tree shrew in Southeast Asia that basically lives on palm wine. And somehow, it never gets drunk. Lots of animals will occasionally down a spiked drink if given the chance.

Some even show a preference for it. But none are so well adapted to binge-drinking as the pen-tailed tree shrew. They’re small, nocturnal mammals and they spend their nights drinking bertam palm nectar.

The spiky plant is a tough sell for most species, so being able to consume it gives the tree shrews an abundant, reliable food source. But the sugary juice it produces is frothy and stinks like booze, for good reason. It’s fermented by yeast, and it can contain as much alcohol as a light beer, up to about 4%.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the tree shrews, though, who can spend spend more than two hours at a time slurping away. Scientists have calculated that they drink their body weight equivalent of about 9 glasses of wine several nights a week. But they never seem drunk!

No stumbling around, falling out of trees, or dialing their exes because they need closure. And that might be because of the way they break down alcohol. When we drink, most of the alcohol we consume is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, eventually becoming acetic acid, aka the stuff in vinegar.

But a very small amount is bound to a glucose derivative to make a compound called ethyl glucuronide. And tree shrew hairs contain about 30 times the level of ethyl glucuronide that indicates excessive drinking in people. Researchers think that’s because tree shrews are up to 30 times more efficient than us at breaking down ethanol this way, which could explain their tolerance.

But lots of ethyl glucuronide is also thought to be one of the drivers of blinding hangover headaches, as well as the pain associated with withdrawal in alcoholics. So we don’t yet know how they avoid being perpetually hungover… or why they aren’t grumpier if they do spend every morning with a splitting headache. Of course, pen-tailed tree shrews aren’t the only animals that can handle their liquor.

Several bat species can apparently drink until their blood alcohol is 0.3% nearly four times the legal driving limit in the US and they still hunt and fly just fine. But biologists don’t think that kind of drinking is a nightly activity for them. And other species, including primates like the slow loris, also drink alcohol regularly, they just don’t drink as much.

Tree shrews are the only animals we know of that binge drink all the time… other than some humans. Which is especially interesting, because they’re considered one of our closest living non-primate relatives, having veered off from our line some 60ish million years ago. Their boozy behavior adds to the growing evidence that our relationship with alcohol began long before we learned how to ferment it for ourselves, and may even suggest there are benefits to regular drinking.

But … it’s important to remember that their bodies have adaptations for excessive alcohol consumption that ours don’t. So it’s probably best to leave the binge drinking to the tree shrews. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and thanks to NordVPN for sponsoring this episode.

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