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How do elephants navigate?

Scientists, conservationists, and the public alike have long recognized the remarkable memories of elephants, immortalized in the phrase, “An elephant never forgets.” This extraordinary memory is a key reason African elephants are so resilient and adaptable, able to navigate through harsh landscapes and droughts. In this article, we will explore how elephants navigate and survive using their exceptional memories, shedding light on another incredible feature of these awe-inspiring animals.

Navigating the Tsavo Conservation Area

The Tsavo Conservation Area in Kenya comprises Tsavo East and West national parks, the Chyulu Hills national park, the South Kitui national reserve, and the surrounding lands. Tsavo East and West are largely hot and dry with sparsely located water resources.

When rain falls in Tsavo, it triggers a surge in vegetation growth, transforming the sparse land into a thriving environment. Wildflowers bloom, creating a vibrant landscape that attracts pollinating insects and the birds that feed on them. Heavy rainfall also brings seasonal pools, which host a variety of life.

For elephants, this is a time of abundance. Vegetation is plentiful, water is everywhere, and elephants can gather in mega herds to socialize, mate, and reaffirm family bonds.

However, when the rains stop, Tsavo quickly returns to a sparse and arid environment. Seasonal water holes dry up, and the area’s inhabitants rely on the two rivers flowing through Tsavo and the few man-made watering holes. This is when the elephants’ incredible memory and understanding of their environment become crucial for their survival.

How Do Elephants Navigate
Elephants follow the matriarch through a barren environment within Tsavo Conservation Area

Why is elephant memory so good?

Elephants need to drink water every 2-3 days, so it is very important for them to remember water sources, especially during droughts. These large creatures can travel up to 200 km in a single day in search of food and mates. Given the vast distances they cover, having a clear mental map of water resources helps them pinpoint these sources efficiently, conserving energy.

One important tool for finding water is their trunks. They possess incredible smelling abilities, detecting water from up to 19 km away. They can also use their exceptional hearing, to listen to the sounds of other animals near watering holes. However, these don’t fully explain their success in locating water over vast distances.

The key lies in their highly developed and large brains. Elephants’ brains are similarly structured to humans but with three times as many neurons. This means they are capable of complex emotions and advanced cognition.

A particularly developed part of the brain in African elephants is the hippocampus, which is responsible for converting short-term memory to long-term memory and storing spatial memory used for navigation. A developed hippocampus is crucial, as remembering important routes and resources is essential for survival in harsh environments.

How accurate is elephant navigation?

A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society tracked the movements of elephants across the African savannah and found that elephants consistently choose the shortest distances to watering holes, pinpointing the location even from 50 km away.

The study, conducted in Etosha National Park, Namibia, tracked individual elephants over two years. These elephants would head rapidly and directly toward the known watering hole, choosing the nearest one to their location 90% of the time.

Passing down wisdom

Possessing a remarkable memory is one thing, but for it to be useful, elephants need experience. This is where their social system becomes crucial. Family groups follow the lead of a matriarch, the oldest and most experienced member. The matriarch leverages her exceptional memory to find resources for her herd, passing down vital information to young elephants for them to store in their hippocampus.

As elephants can live up to 60 years in the wild, the longer they live, the more resources they are able to discover and, more importantly, remember. An experienced matriarch leading the family group provides a strong survival advantage.

Studies in Amboseli National Park have shown that family groups with older, larger matriarchs roam over larger areas during droughts. This is due to the older females’ extensive knowledge of alternative areas with food and water.

Elephant Matriarch
Dida, perhaps Tsavo’s most iconic matriarch, led her family group through times of plenty and times of struggle.

The unforgettable elephant

The extraordinary memory of elephants is not only a fascinating trait but a crucial survival tool. Their ability to remember and navigate to essential resources like water and food, especially in harsh environments, demonstrates their resilience and adaptability. Through their highly developed brains, particularly the hippocampus, elephants can store and recall spatial information over vast distances.

As Bill Murray aptly said, “They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is that you never forget an elephant.” Indeed, the intelligence and memory of these awe-inspiring animals leave a lasting impression on all who encounter them. By understanding and appreciating how elephants navigate and survive, we can better support their conservation and ensure that these unforgetting, and unforgettable, creatures continue to roam the earth for generations to come.

If you would like to support our efforts in protecting and monitoring elephants within the vast landscape of Tsavo Conservation Area, follow this link to learn how. 

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