The notion that “an elephant never forgets” is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that elephants have quite impressive intellectual skills and many scientists regard elephants as being the smartest of animals.
The elephant has the largest brain of any land mammal, weighing in at about 10.5 pounds, so it isn’t totally surprising that elephants can and do remember a lot. Although scientists haven’t been able to do completely conclusive studies elephant memories, they have conducted various experiments that prove that elephants remember more than many mammals.
First of all, elephants are very good at recognizing members of their own herd so that they don’t get separated and mixed into other clans. In fact, elephants appear to have emotional attachments to their relatives. As seen in this clip from BBC, when one of an elephant’s relatives die, they mourn over its corpse, stroking it with their feet and trunks.
In addition to these apparent grieving behaviors, some elephants have been reported to cry. There is one case of an elephant who was in captivity for years and, upon being released, he began to cry. Scientists say they don’t know the psychological reasons behind it, but there were definitely tears from the elephant.
Also, elephants can remember locations well, such as sources of food and water, even if they haven’t visited for decades. Elephant clans with a high number of older members tend to live longer. This is because elephants can use their memory of the past to problem solve. For example, if an elephant survived a drought as a child, it may be able to sense a drought coming in the future and thus lead its family to reliable sources of water.
Perhaps the most astounding skill of the elephant is its ability to create art.
Scientists are still unsure whether elephants attach any meaning to their artwork, but regardless its pretty amazing that their trunks are dexterous enough to grasp and move the paintbrush, and that their brains are able to produce recognizable shapes on the canvas.
Unfortunately, elephants are a major target for poachers. When one elephant is poached, its decades worth of memories, its artistic abilities, and its incredible mental capacity goes with it. Because of poaching, elephants are now considered endangered species. This is even more sad because elephants, although they can be threatening and protective, are among the gentlest of creatures. Despite their massive size, scientists have found that elephants won’t hurt tiny animals like flies or mice.
So although elephants may not never forget, they certainly have very impressive cognitive abilities, like compassion, grief, memory, and art. Scientists are still researching elephants’ skills, and it will be interesting to see what they discover.