Why do elephants have an exceptional memory?

A community of elephants relies heavily on its veteran leaders. Their memory and knowledge are crucial to the group’s continued existence.

People who recall little details years after they happened are typically praised for their “memory like an elephant.” But is it true that elephants never forget? Do proboscideans really have an unusually good memory? All the data so far suggest that these animals actually do have exceptional memory. And for the obvious reason that it’s essential to their survival. Let’s have a look at the unusual memory of elephants.

Survival into old age and the development of sophisticated societies

The unusual social structure of elephant societies and their very long life expectancy both contribute to the importance of having a good memory for these animals. Those are, above all, the two factors that make it absolutely necessary to remember almost everything.

Fission-fusion societies are what elephants call home. What this implies is that unlike a pack of wolves, for instance, individuals of a group of elephants tend to disperse from time to time. Instead, they sometimes split out into their own ways. When the original members of the group reunite years or even decades later, it is tremendously helpful if they can quickly identify one other.

This is analogous to a person reuniting with a long-lost classmate after many years have passed. While many of us would struggle to appropriately categorize the old friend on the spot in such a situation, elephants have no such trouble. The reason is, we utilize our eyes more than any other sense when trying to remember a face.

But instead of its eyes, an elephant uses its trunk and ears to remember almost exclusively. The elephants are able to identify one other and communicate across long distances because of their highly developed and complicated sound system, which makes use of tones in the very low infrasound spectrum. Those pachyderms can communicate over several kilometers.

Sounds and odors are preserved permanently in the elephant brain

Despite this, excellent auditory recall is not restricted to just the sounds of conspecifics. Sounds that remind them of important events or experiences are likewise stored indelibly in their minds. For instance, elephants experience extreme anxiety when exposed to the buzzing of bees. This seems logical, given how uncomfortable it may be to come into contact with these creatures.

Elephants have a fantastic memory that is closely linked to their acute sense of smell. They can, for instance, tell the difference between friendly and unfriendly groups of individuals based on their scent and steer clear of the latter. The farmers in Africa have successfully exploited the distinctive odor of various ethnic groups’ clothes to deter elephants from their crop fields.

It seems that such connections are forever stored in the long-term memory of elephants once they are learned. For the same reason, a community of elephants relies heavily on its veteran leaders. Their memory and knowledge are crucial to the group’s continued existence. 

For instance, without an experienced elephant to serve as a leader, younger animals are more likely to perish during droughts. However, groups headed by older matriarchs benefit from the wisdom of their elders since they can reliably guide the younger generations to waterholes that have sustained water supply for a long time. Young elephants observe their elders and take cues from them on how to handle certain scenarios.

The bee situation

Elephants don’t learn from their past experiences in captivity as much. But even here, elephants benefit from their mental flexibility and good memory. While zoo elephants may forget that bees are dangerous, they certainly know to steer clear of boisterous gatherings of kids.

This demonstrates unequivocally that elephants are very intelligent. After all, the intellect we attribute to others is shaped by the context of our own lives. However, elephants have a very different method of seeing the environment, and they thus need quite different abilities. These creatures are smart because they can read facial expressions in mirrors, can calculate, work together when necessary, and be highly devoted to one another, among other things. To be able to make it in their environment is all that matters for elephants and they excel at it to a high degree.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.