Do Elephants Really Have Good Memories?
The theory that elephants have good memories has been greatly exaggerated. The elephant does remember many things, but its memory is no better than that of many other animals. Well-trained elephants can learn and remember about 30 spoken orders.
A trained elephant obeys an order, even if it has not heard the command for a while. But it is common for a circus elephant to slip up on its act due to a slight lapse of memory. Like people, elephants remember those who have been good to them, and those who have treated them badly.
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.
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.