JUN 17, 2017 4:03 PM PDT

The elephant who never forgets


The proverb goes: an elephant never forgets. But what makes elephants have such great memories? An elephant is able to remember every member in their group, recognize as many as 30 companions by sight or smell, remember cues that signal danger, and recall significant locations - all of which help them survive. But it is their memory that is not obviously related to survival that makes them incredible beings. Take their ability to remember people and other elephants who they have not seen for years or decades, such as the two circus elephants who rejoiced upon their reunion after 10 years even though they had only worked together for a short time. So what gives elephants this advanced memory?

Elephants have the biggest brains of any land mammal and a high brain-to-body ratio (almost that of a chimpanzee); furthermore, convergent evolution has made their brains highly developed, with as many neurons and synapses in their hippocampus and cerebral cortex. It is this large and high-functioning hippocampus that aids with the elephants capacity to recall certain individuals or places by encoding the information into long-term memories. This plays into the social aspect of elephants, explaining why clans with older matriarchs (the older, the better because they hold more memories and knowledge about survival) often thrive more than clans without the wizened females. Their large brains also account for their unique problem-solving skill set and their emotions. To learn more about the cool things elephants can do, watch the video!
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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