Do elephants really ‘never forget’?

African elephants excel at remembering facts that are key to their survival. (Image credit: Manoj Shah via Getty Images)

They say “an elephant never forgets.” But how much truth is there to that expression? How good is an elephant’s memory?

Although it’s not strictly accurate to say an elephant never forgets, the pachyderms evolved to remember details that are key to their survival. For example, elder African elephants (Loxodonta africana) can recall the unique sounds and smells of predators (even discriminating between different groups of people, depending on their odor and clothing color (opens in new tab)), retrace their steps to find water holes in the arid savanna, and distinguish family members and associates from hundreds of other elephants.

“Being able to seek out sufficient food and water in a highly dynamic environment such as the savanna, while also managing complex social relationships and avoiding predation risk, requires a brain capable of processing and remembering detailed information,” Graeme Shannon (opens in new tab), a lecturer in zoology at Bangor University in the UK, told Live Science in an email. “This is a critical skill that can mean the difference between life and death.”

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