You’ve probably heard that “an elephant never forgets.” Obviously, this isn’t exactly true, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how extraordinary the memory (and, more generally, the brain) of an elephant really is.
For African elephants (Loxodonta africana), having a fantastic memory is crucial for survival in the harsh world of the savanna. Due to their incredible size, an elephant needs to consume around 330 lbs (150 kg) of food each day. As they are herbivores, that’s a truly staggering amount of vegetation. Elephants migrate great distances in search of food, according to the wet and dry seasons, putting them at risk of starvation, dehydration, and threats from predators, including people.
The elephant’s amazing memory – especially in older individuals – allows them to recall details about their migration routes, including locating water holes, identifying predators by sight, sound, and smell, and distinguishing between their group and the many other elephants they may encounter.
Older and wiser:
- Age has a lot to do with survival, especially in challenging situations such as droughts. In a 2008 study, biologists found that elephant herds led by young matriarchs fared significantly worse in a drought than herds led by older female elephants, who had the life experience to adapt and find water. More than half of the calves in one herd led by a younger matriarch died during a drought because the leader didn’t have prior experience.
- Elephants have several anatomical characteristics that could explain their excellent memories. They not only have the largest brain of any land mammal, but also the largest temporal lobe (responsible for sound processing and memory encoding) relative to their body size. They also have unique cortical neurons.
- Tragically, poachers often target older elephants because they have the biggest tusks. But in addition to their large size, these elephants also have the most valuable memories, which are crucial for the survival of their herd.