Elephants Never Forget: A Fact or Just a Myth?

Ever heard of a saying, an elephant never forgets? It is an expression used to a person who has a very good memory and less likely to forget something. Generally, it is one type of compliment but it can also be used when talking about someone who can’t let go of the past. But wait….we are not learning English today but to find out how far this saying is actually true, is it scientifically proven or just a myth?

Many years ago, at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., a resident elephant becomes anxious when it was introduced to a newcomer, an Asian elephant. While both were checking one another’s scars using their trunks and after some research and information digging from the sanctuary founder, it appears that both elephants have briefly crossed paths in a circus 23 years earlier.

Photo: Carole Deschuymere / Alamy Stock Photo

An average adult elephant’s brain weighs in at approximately 11 pounds (largest of all land mammals) compared to humans brains which weigh about 3 pounds. Needless to say, a large brain doesn’t necessarily mean an animal will be smart.

“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” - www.wonderopolis.org

Elephants can only be separated by death or captivity as they live in close-knit herds. Their capacity for sadness and grief is truly unique as it is particularly complex in terms of emotion. Elephants are in distress when they have to leave the weak and young behind to die compared to most animals. A mother of a dead calf’s eye is sunken, her ears drooping and her mood is visibly miserable.

When a herd came across a dead’s elephant remains, they will take the bones, scatter them and hide under bushes in the area. While this is use as an act of dignity to the dead, it is also to protect the herd from stalking predators. Even years later, the herd will revisit the site where their family members had died and remain there for few days to mourn.


How good memories help elephants in the wild?

Older, female elephants (called “matriarchs”) often lead herds and build strong memory over time which allows them to remember families and enemies. A psychologist, Richard Byrne from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and other researchers has discovered that elephants can recognize and keep track of locations as many as 30 traveling-mates at a time during a study at Amboseli National Park, Kenya in 2007.

Scientists placed urine samples in front of female elephants, which used their trunks to check them thoroughly and reacted when they came across a sample that is not familiar and did not come from their herd. They certainly know each member of the group.

This remarkable recall power is a big advantage for them to survive and live for such a long time (50-60 years or more on average). They could remember places where the herd has found food and water in the past. Elephants also remember injuries and can hold grudges against those who hurt them.

Do you know anyone with a powerful memory like this, or are you the one with it? This post is also in conjunction with World Elephant Day on 12th August. Learn more about this day HERE