Elephants Never Forget! Fact or Fiction?

Elephants may not have the best vision of any animal, but they never forget a face. When resident elephant Jenny was introduced to newcomer Shirley, an Asian elephant, in 1999, Carol Buckley of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., reported that she got frightened and could not be held. Shirley grew active as the animals checked each other out with their trunks, and the two obviously old friends looked to have an emotional reunion. “There was this joy,” recalls Buckley, the sanctuary’s owner. “Shirley started yelling, and Jenny followed suit. Both trunks were inspecting the scars of the other. I’ve never had an intense experience that wasn’t accompanied by hostility.” Years previously, the two elephants had briefly crossed paths. Jenny had played in the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus before coming to the sanctuary in 1999, but Buckley didn’t know much about Shirley’s past. Shirley had been in the circus with Jenny for a few months—23 years earlier—she discovered with a little searching.

Elephants’ remarkable memory capacity, according to experts, is a key part of how they survive. According to study performed on elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, matriarch elephants in particular have a bank of social knowledge that their families can’t live without.

When faced by an unknown elephant, researchers from the University of Sussex in England observed that elephant groups with a 55-year-old matriarch (elephants live between 50 and 60 years) were more likely to huddle in a protective position than those with a 35-year-old matriarch. Karen McComb, a psychologist and animal behaviorist at Sussex, and her colleagues wrote in Science that they did so because they were aware that such visitors were likely to cause disputes with the group and perhaps injure calves.

Other researchers who examined three elephant herds in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park during a severe drought in 1993 discovered that they not only know one another but also remember routes to alternate food and water sources when their typical places dry up.

Pachyderm groups with matriarchs ages 38 and 45 fled the dry park, probably in quest of water and grub, according to scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York City, who reported in Biology Letters that those with a younger matriarch, age 33, stayed there.

Sixteen of the 81 calves born in the park that year died within nine months, a mortality rate of 20%, far higher than the average 2%; ten of the dead were from the group that remained in the park, where feed and water were limited.

Researchers found that the elder elephants remembered a drought in the park from 1958 to 1961, and how their herds survived by relocating to more lusher places further away. The elephants who remained behind were too young to recall the previous dry season.

During a 2007 study at Amboseli, psychologist Richard Byrne of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and other researchers showed that elephants can recognize and follow the whereabouts of up to 30 partners at once. “Imagine taking your family to a busy department shop around the holidays,” adds Byrne. “Keeping track of four or five family members is a difficult task. These elephants are going with 30 other elephants.” The scientists put urine samples in front of female elephants, who investigated them carefully with their trunks and acted up when they found one that didn’t come from a member of their brood and hence shouldn’t have been there. “Most animals who live in groups, such as deer, have no knowledge who the other creatures in their pack are,” explains Byrne. Elephants, on the other hand, “almost surely know every [member] in their group.”

Byrne adds that the elephant’s “working memory” is “far ahead of what other animals have been proved to have,” and it helps the elephant in keeping track of the family groups that move, forage, and interact together.

According to WCS cognitive scientist Diana Reiss and colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta, elephants are on par with dolphins, primates, and humans in terms of intelligence. Elephants, like the other mammals in that restricted circle, are the only creatures known to identify their reflections in a mirror, according to a 2006 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist and the founder of Save the Elephants in Nairobi, Kenya, is a pachyderm expert who has researched them since the 1960s. Early in his career, he recalls going so close to an elephant in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park that he could walk beside her in the wild. In 1969, he left the region to finish his thesis and did not return for another four years. He claims that when he returned, it was as if he’d never left. “She walked straight up to me and behaved the same way,” he adds, adding that they continued their pleasant strolls.

“They’re long-lived creatures,” Douglas-Hamilton adds, “and memory would be an advantage to a long-lived animal, making it more adaptable to situations.” “Clearly, elephants can live if they are exposed to extremes in environment and can recall where their ood is throughout the year.”