Do Elephants Really Never Forget? Here’s How Their Brains Are Different From Ours

Elephants have earned a crazy reputation for
being able to remember places, migratory patterns and voice differences… in fact there’s
some evidence to show that they can even hold a grudge. But is it true they really NEVER forget? Elephants have arguably one of the most intelligent
brains in the animal kingdom; scientists often place them up there with dolphins and even
apes. Even though we think of elephants as just
one animal, there are actually three distinct living species of elephant, two in Africa
and one in Asia. Each species have different advantages and
disadvantages, but for this piece we’re going to try and keep it simple… On average, elephant brains are 3 times the
size of human brains. Like us, they have complex neural networks
and actually have MORE neurons than humans do ––257 billion to our mere 86 billion. Though size alone doesn’t actually predict
intelligence or memory — because it depends on where in the brain the neurons are. In the case of elephants almost 98% of their
neurons, are stored in their cerebellum. This region sits in the back of the brain
and is thought to be linked to motor skills and sensory input, meaning it’s in charge
of handling all the massiveness that is an elephant. Which makes sense––their trunks alone
have over one hundred thousand bundles of muscle fibers I can’t even imagine controlling
something like that. A larger animal often requires a larger brain
— there’s more skin, more muscle, more of everything!Outside of their impressive
cerebellum … Elephants actually DON’T have a very robust cerebral cortex (an area
of the brain often linked to higher intelligence), but some have the ability to problem-solve
with tools, and still others have even been observed to recognize friends, family, food
routes, and enemies. And Asian elephants, specifically, have been
known to exhibit self-awareness in mirrors. Which is huge! In fact, both African and Indian elephants
have a unique set of neurons called VENs that are believed to mediate social-empathic behaviors
— and humans also have these these! But even though elephants are incredible animals,
a human brain is FAR more densely populated with neural networks. It’s possible that we can’t use our models
for elephants. They could represent a different type of cognitive
structure. Scientists speculate the elephant brain favors
“widespread interconnectivity” of distant regions rather than proximity of clustered
ones. Their neurons are farther apart than ours,
and while we don’t know exactly why. So even though we understand a lot about the
structure of elephant brains, we still haven’t grasped their long memory, but we KNOW they
have it from observing their behavior. Some elephants travel in packs as small as
8 or as large as 100 individuals. And the experiences of a herd make them wiser. And that wisdom is passed on to younger generations. Herds are made up of a matriarchy, meaning
the group is led by female elephants, usually the eldest. And since elephants can reach the age of 60
to 80 years old, that many years of information can come in handy. For example, in 1993, Tanzania had one of
the worst droughts in their recent history. Places where water was normally abundant,
dried up… and groups with older females, who had lived through previous droughts, moved
to locations with a greater chance of water, while those headed by younger matriarchs stayed
behind.The younger herds lost more calves within 9 months than elder’s groups. But memory of droughts isn’t the only thing…
elephants can also remember friends and foes. Another study was conducted where elephants
listened to recordings of men from the Masai (a group that has been known to kill elephants
to protect grazing land) and then recordings from the Kamba tribe, who don’t bother elephants
much at all. Even though both tribes repeated the same
phrase in the recording, a majority of elephants acted much more defensively when the Masai
recording was played! So a herd with a matriarch that has experience
with Masai might turn her herd away if she recognizes their language, ultimately saving
her herd from harm. In the end, we understand more about elephants
and their long memories than we did decades ago, but with regard to HOW they can remember
things like water holes or voices from their youth… we’re still working on it. More research is of course needed. They’re clearly wise creatures, and hopefully
one day we’ll better understand what goes on in that massive brain of theirs. You probably love elephants if you’re still
watching — so you’ll love this special episode of Dodo Heroes. This family rehabilitates and rewilds elephants
saved from Thailand’s tourism industry! Tune in at 9 / 8 Central on Animal Planet,
or stream all the episodes on the Animal Planet GO app. Don’t forget to look out for the hashtag
Dodo Heroes. 😀 Determining how smart animals are is really
hard… know why? Check out Maren’s video about it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more wild
science in your day. And one last elefact before you go, elephants
have very poor eyesight! They primarily rely on odor to learn about
one another and the world around them. They can even smell water from several miles
away! Thanks for watching everyone.