Yes, elephants have excellent memory and research has repeatedly shown them to have exceptional recall power. This ability is essential to elephant’s survival, allowing them to recognise friends, avoid danger and remember treasured routes to food and water in habitats with scarce resources.
Elephants are one of the most intelligent animals on earth, matching wits with dolphins and the great apes (including humans). Elephants have the largest brain of any land mammal but they also have the largest temporal lobe (relative to body size) of any animal, even humans. The temporal lobe is very important for what we understand as intelligence as it plays a key role in language and communication, spatial memory and general cognition.
There are many studies that demonstrate elephants excellent spatial memory. In the early nineties three groups of elephants were monitored during a severe drought at Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. The older elephants, who had been present for the park’s previous drought in the fifties and sixties, migrated to lusher areas where they were able to hold out against the drought. However younger elephants who were not old enough to have lived through or remember the previous drought did not migrate, choosing to stay put instead.
Elephants also have excellent social memory and research has shown that they are able to remember as many as 30 other elephants. The real number could be much higher and these memories have in many instances spanned decades. Not only do elephants recognise other members of their herds or families but they are also one of the few animals to be able to consistently recognise themselves in the mirror when presented with their reflection.
I never forget a face
In 1999 at a small elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee a resident elephant called Jenny was introduced to a new resident at the sanctuary, elephant Shirley.
When the two elephants met, they became incredibly excitable, vocalising loudly, search each other’s bodies for scars and having what appeared to be to all observers a very emotional reunion. The sanctuary’s founder Carol Buckley said “I’ve never experience anything that intense without it being aggression”.
After some digging it turned out Jenny and Shirley had in fact met before. It was already known to the sanctuary’s staff that Jenny had briefly performed with a travelling circus but it wasn’t until they looked into it that they learned Shirley had also performed at the same circus with Jenny for a few months. 23 years earlier.