“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.

 

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    • Hello, RussellMC! We’re glad you learned something new about elephants from today’s Wonder! Thanks for hanging out in Wonderopolis today! :-)

    • Great question, :D! Some elephants have been known to use branches from trees as “fly swatters” to shoo flies from buzzing around them. They have also been seen breaking branches to exactly the right size for scratching itches they can’t quite reach! Pretty smart, huh? :-)

    • Those videos were SO INSPIRING, Mindy! Thank you for sharing the link with everyone in Wonderopolis today!

      We thought it was amazing that Shirley and Jenny remembered each other after all those years. The ending of the 2nd video when they were “hugging” each other with their trunks was the best!

      Here is a video we found of Shirley and the other elephants that live at the Elephant Sanctuary enjoying the SNOW last year! http://www.youtube.com/user/elephantsanctuarytn#p/search/14/3PqPWMDA7tI

  1. Thank you for having the elephant wonder.
    You know,I really do like elephants and my friends from Pintree school, ( The Global perspectives) Has just came back from Africa and and saw: ELEPHANTS!

    • We know lots of our Wonder Friends want to learn more about elephants, Tiffany! How cool that your friends got to see real elephants in the wild…we think that would be quite an awesome sight! :-)

  2. I love ELEPHANTS, they are my favorite animal, such a big fan!!!

    I love the wonderopolis article. Thanks, it was great. I love it so so so so much thanks, wonderopolis.

    • We think elephants are really awesome, too, Lauren! Thank you for your WONDERful comment and for letting us know you enjoyed this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • What a SUPER special experience for you, Rithik! Thank you for sharing it with your friends in Wonderopolis today! We think elephants are AWESOME and we hope you enjoyed learning about them as much as we did today! :-)

    • We’re so glad to hear that you and your class learned something new today, Mr. Taylor! Elephants are interesting animals, if we do say so ourselves! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  3. It is sooooooooo cool how elephants can remember things. In my class we read an article about them, and they are amazing. They are such remarkable animals!!!!
    LONG LIVE THE ELEPHANT!!!!!!

    • Emma, we are so glad you enjoyed our Wonder all about elephants! You did a fantastic job sharing what you learned, and you used so many descriptive words! Thank you for sharing your comment with us! :)

  4. Today we read an article about elephants and elephant poaching in Time for Kids. I think it’s remarkable that elephants will recognize remains of their herd members, and show empathy. Do you know if there’s any difference between the human brain, and the elephant brain that makes their memory stronger other than size?

    • Good afternoon, Wonder Friend Chloe! The article you read sounds awesome, and we are so glad you’re thinking all about elephants and how they live their lives. We hope you’ll Wonder and find an answer to your question about the differences between the human brain and the elephant brain! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Do elephants ever forget?
  • How big is an elephant’s brain?
  • Are elephants smart?

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herd of African elephants_shutterstock_54180163Vimeo Video

Try It Out

How good is YOUR memory? Put your memory to the test when you play the Elephants Never Forget! memory game!

After you’ve tested your memory, have some more elephant-sized fun with one of these great activities:

 

Still Wondering

Dugongs are large mammals that look like a cross between seals and walruses, but they’re actually more closely related to elephants. Visit National Geographic Xpeditions’ Dugongs and Elephants: Cousins? lesson to learn more about the relationship between dugongs and elephants.

 

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