Do elephants really never forget?

African elephants excel at memorizing 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 in that expression? How good is the memory of an elephant?

Although it is not strictly speaking accurate to say that an elephant never forgets, pachyderms evolved to remember details that are key to their survival. For example, older African elephants (Loxodonta africana) can remember the unique sounds and smells of predators (even discriminate between different groups of people, depending on smell and color of clothes (opens in a new tab)), retrace their steps to find waterholes in the dry savannah, separating family members and associates from hundreds of other elephants.

“Being able to find enough food and water in a highly dynamic environment like the savanna, while managing complex social relationships and avoiding predation risk, requires a brain capable of processing and remembering detailed information.” Graeme Shannon (opens in a new tab), a lecturer in zoology at Bangor University in the United Kingdom, told LiveScience in an email. “This is a critical skill that can mean the difference between life and death.”

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