WUPPERTAL, Germany — Elephants never forget, as the saying goes, and a new study finds that’s especially true when it comes to faces. A researcher in Germany finds that the enormous mammals never forget a face, even after 12 years.
Lead author Franziska Horner of the University of Wuppertal explains that the elephant’s legendary memory is even better than previously thought. The planet’s largest land mammal can recall a relative they haven’t seen in more than a decade — just from the smell of their poop.
During the study, when elephants caught a whiff from a family member, they made rumbling sounds, flapped their ears, and continued to have a good sniff. Horner believes these reactions have a link to positive emotions.
“That was amazing and really intense. We were sure they do remember – and they know exactly what they are smelling there,” the study authors says, according to a report in New Scientist.
Her team carried out the unusual experiments during reunions between mothers and daughters at zoos in Germany. One pair of elephants had been separated for two years another had been apart for 12 years. Horner collected fecal samples from each of these animals. When they encountered heaps of feces from unrelated elephants — either those in the same zoo or unfamiliar individuals — the four elephants sniffed the stool and walked away.
When examining a sample from the mother or daughter they were about to reunite with, however, the female elephants repeatedly sniffed the samples and showed a variety of reactions. The study author notes that the sample size was small, but it would be cruel to do similar tests on larger elephant populations that were not reuniting.
“I am not surprised that elephant have memories, especially in social contexts, that last a long time,” says Dr. Joshua Plotnik of Hunter College in New York, who was not a part of the study, according to a statement from SWNS.
Elephants live in groups that split up and come back together over long periods of time. However, Dr. Plotnik contends the experiment may not be a true test of memory. There may be scent cues common to all kin that can trigger recognition — with no link to memory.
Presenting the elephants with a slew of other smells would help make sense of their responses. Studies show elephants can remember an experience from when they were a baby throughout their whole life. They also have some of the largest brains in the animal kingdom. Their intelligence is key to survival in the wild.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.