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elephant memory|elephant memory|elephant memory

Nostalgia

Exploring Animal Memory

How powerful is the elephant memory? When Jenny, an elephant at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN bellowed with excitement after being introduced to a new elephant, Shirley, at the sanctuary, the elephant keepers were left scratching their heads. 1 None of the other elephants had a similar reaction to Shirley, as Jenny and Shirley magnetized to one another and began greeting each other like old friends.

Turns out, they were. After some research into the two elephant’s history, it was discovered that Shirley and Jenny had actually crossed paths with one another at the Carson & Barnes Circus, twenty-three years prior! Anecdotes like this pop up all around elephant preserve across the world, demonstrating the powerful capacities of the elephant memory.

Biologist and preservationists have observed that many highly intelligent creatures like elephants and whales have powerful animal memories. The ability to recognize and remember their fellow packmates as well as keep a map-like memory of their habitat, complete with remembering sources of water and food to explore when the typical sources run out, is essential to the survival of these species. Elephant memory has been observed to be particularly potent. Elephants have the capacity to hold on to spatial memory of miles of territory for decades. They have been known to awaken one morning and head straight to an alternative water source they haven’t been to in years.

 elephant memory Memory Recall in Animals


Just like how the power of aroma and scents have the capacity to send human beings deep into a memory, many animals, including elephants, stimulate their memories through scent. There is even common approach animals take when identifying each other. Dogs sniff each other when meeting and then use the memory of each other’s scent to recognize each other later. Elephants have been shown to do the same thing.

But even creatures like Monarch butterflies, whose adult lifespan is typically between two and six weeks, have the capacity to remember and navigate huge distances, like some that were observed traveling to a specific cluster of pine groves in central Mexico during the winter. This phenomenon has interesting implications for understanding how animal memories function. What do the monarch butterflies remember, exactly?

Researchers have discovered that the primary way monarchs are able to navigate is through a small cluster of cells in their brains that function as a circadian clock. 2 This area of the brain is made up of proteins called CRY. Scientists have discovered that these cells function in monarchs closer to the way they do in mammal brains than other insects. The monarch’s capacity to make these migrations south indicates that they have a more complex neurology than we previously thought.

Why Is Elephant Memory So Potent? elephant memory


Even though many animals demonstrate the capacity to remember a wide range of stimuli over long periods of time, elephant memory continues to capture the imagination of people the most often. As the old saying goes, “An Elephant Never Forgets.”

One aspect of elephant memory that has been most intriguing to researchers is the recognition that the oldest elephants in a pack are responsible for holding social knowledge and memory necessary for the entire pack’s survival. 3 Normally, these elephants are the oldest females in the group, who can live to be as old as 60. Their ability to remember elephants from other packs and direct the social order of their herds had the power to dictate the behavior of their entire pack.

Scientists have also shown that elephants can remember up to thirty different individual elephants if they are part of their herd, and will work to keep track of their locations as they travel for miles. Female elephants can detect through urine samples which elephants belong in their herd and which ones are unfamiliar to the group. This kind of discriminatory power would be unheard of in a pack of deer or other grazing animals.

What We Can Learn from Animal Memories


Understanding the way animal memories function and the vast capacity so many creatures have to remember their experiences and develop a sense of place and relationship highlights the tendency humans have to downplay the cognitive function of animals. When we recognize that so many other creatures form memories and connections it becomes more difficult to discern why the experiences of human beings are so much more significant than that of other animals.

By recognizing the power of animal memories, especially elephant memory, we can discover even deeper points of connection with the natural world. Our capacity to remember our past helps us develop an understanding of who we are and where we are going in the world. Sharing that capacity with other animals helps us to understand that we are all part of a shared future on this planet!

Humans have the same capacity to have memories triggered by the scents we smell, and so making good memories while smelling something will create an association.

Photo Credits: PaddenPhotography/shutterstock.com, HordynskiPhotography/shutterstock.com, CraigMorrison/shutterstock.com

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