“An elephant never forgets!” Have you ever heard that saying before?
It’s a common saying, and people have believed that elephants have incredible memories for a long time. But is it true?
Believe it or not, the belief that elephants never forget has more than a bit of truth to it. In reality, “an elephant never forgets” is a generalization that’s not true all the time because all elephants forget things from time to time. However, scientists have proven that elephants do have incredible memories.
Researchers who studied African elephants in the wild learned that older, female elephants (called “matriarchs”) often lead herds. These matriarchs build up a strong memory over time that allows them to remember friends and enemies.
They can also remember places where the herd has found food and water in the past. Researchers believe elephants’ good memories are a big part of how elephants survive and why so many live so long (50 to 60 years or more on average).
Those who work closely with elephants also have noticed that elephants remember injuries and can hold grudges against those who have hurt them. For example, a study of African elephants showed that the elephants would react negatively to the smell or sight of certain clothing.
They discovered that the elephants reacted this way because the clothing resembled that worn by Maasai tribesmen. These tribesmen often threw spears at elephants to prove their manhood.
So why do elephants have such great memories? Scientists believe it probably has something to do with their large brains. An average adult elephant’s brain weighs in at approximately 11 pounds — the largest of all the land mammals!
In comparison, the brains of humans and bottlenose dolphins — two other “smart” mammals — weigh about three pounds. Of course, a large brain doesn’t necessarily mean an animal will be smart.
Studies have shown, though, that elephants are among the smartest species in the animal kingdom. In fact, some scientists believe elephants are as smart as dolphins and chimpanzees.
An elephant’s brain is like a human’s brain in both structure and complexity. Researchers have found that elephants exhibit many behaviors that reveal substantial intelligence, including grief, altruism, mimicry, play, art, use of tools and self-awareness.
For example, most elephants live in family groups that can only be separated by death or capture. Amazingly, elephants show signs of grief when they encounter the remains of other elephants that have died. It’s not uncommon for them to touch the dead bodies or bones with their feet or trunks.
Elephants have shown "altruism" (selfless concern for the welfare of others) by their willingness to help other species, even humans, in distress. Elephants can also be observed playing and mimicking sounds they hear.
When they use their trunks like arms, elephants demonstrate an unusual ability to use tools. One such use that has amazed people at zoos across the world is when an elephant uses its trunk to hold a brush to create abstract art.
Perhaps one of the greatest signs of elephants’ intelligence, though, is the ability to recognize their reflection in a mirror. This ability exhibits self-awareness. This is something that only a few of the most intelligent species can claim.