Incredible Elephant Memory Aids in Herd Survival


Perhaps an elephant should stand in for the “sage owl” character sometimes portrayed in cartoons.

Researchers studying elephant behavior determined that female elephant adults are able to retain memories of faraway sources of food and water, helping them find nourishment and survive through scarce situations, such as droughts.

The scientists think the matriarchs may have been remembering their travels from that earlier drought.

“Our findings seem to support the hypothesis that older females with knowledge of distant resources become crucial to the survival of herds during periods of extreme climatic events,” explained the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Charles Foley, lead author of the study.

Foley’s team based its research on the mortality rates of three elephant groups during a severe 1993 drought. Specifically, the team discovered a correlation between the mortality rate of calves and the age of the female elephants, along with the groups’ movements; they speculate that the old, matriarchal elephants led the two more successful groups to better locations while the third group, with younger mother elephants, stayed put and suffered as a result.

Although this simple correlation between matriarchs and survival can’t verify the hypothesis, the researchers also point out that some of the oldest matriarchs in the two more successful tribes were at least five years old during a drought near the end of the 1950s. The scientists think the matriarchs may have been remembering their travels from that earlier drought.

“It’s enticing to think that these old females and their memories of previous periods of trauma and survival would have meant all the difference. The data seem to support the speculation that the matriarchs with the necessary experience of such events were able to lead their groups to drought refugia,” Foley added.

We’ve previously covered research that reveals elephant intelligence. For instance, elephants have joined humans, great apes, and (to some extent) dolphins in showing they recognize themselves in the mirror. Learning about the intelligence of non-primate animals disrupts evolutionists’ portrayal of great apes as almost quasi-human in their capabilities—and reminds us that God created many highly intelligent (relatively speaking) creatures, well adapted to their environments.

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