Do elephants never forget?

Whether they are white, pink, in the room, or just not forgetting, elephants colour our culture and language. Metaphorical elephants are one thing, but the real things do live up to their reputation for memory. They don’t have perfect recall, that’s setting the bar too high, but they come pretty close.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal — up to about 6.5kg. This gives them a capacity for some heavyweight thoughts. A big brain is very expensive to run, so whenever one appears in nature biologists go looking for a compelling evolutionary force to make it worthwhile. In the case of elephants the need for huge feeding grounds with far flung food sources demands top notch geographical memory. There is some evidence that elephants have a greatly developed hippocampus, a part of the brain associated in rats and humans with memory, and geographical memory in particular.

Elephants know their feeding grounds like the backs of their trunks. They are also very good at recognising other elephants which facilitates social life and communication. Together these let elephants know where to turn in times of need and recognise those times when they arrive.

In captivity elephants have shown astonishing feats of memory spanning periods of years. Their extraordinary memories, coupled with their otherwise rather underwhelming mental capacities, have led to comparisons between elephants and humans with the savant syndrome which sometimes accompanies autism.

But an elephant’s memory is no parlour trick, for them it is a key survival trait. During a severe drought in Tanzania during the 1990s, elephant clans led by matriarchs old enough to remember the previous drought, 35 years before, left for distant spots where they knew food would still be available. Clans led by matriarchs too young to remember the previous drought didn’t see the signs, stayed put and suffered the consequences.

Another notable facet of elephant mental life is the way they show concern for their sick and even seem to mourn their dead. It could be a long time before we’re forgiven for that whole ivory hunting thing — because elephants never forget.

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