Elephants’ Legendary Memories May Be Key to Their Survival


Since I was a boy growing up in Africa I have heard that elephants “never forget.”

Their reputation for remembering may be based in part on their habit of visiting and seemingly mourning the dried bones of their relatives.

Elephants have long been known to teach their young the ancient knowledge they received from their elders of seasonal feeding grounds and when and how to get to them.

A few years ago National Geographic News published a story about Africa’s desert elephants that survive by following an arduous circular migration route between water holes. Leaders need to know what they’re doing. An error in timing could result in the death of the herd.

See an interactive map of this age-old desert elephant migration and read the latest news about elephant memory, in the extended entry.


 View a larger file of this interactive map.

The ancient elephant migration routes in Mali, Africa, were tracked by satellite by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Read the story that goes with this map.

Map by NGS

A new study released today suggests that experienced elephant matriarchs seem to give their family groups an advantage during famine.

The research was based on observations of calf deaths during a particularly severe African drought. Groups that had greater success in protecting their young were the ones that had the oldest females. These were also the groups that left a protected area in search of food and water, perhaps because their matriarchs remembered doing that during an equally severe drought forty years earlier.

“Our findings seem to support the hypothesis that older females with knowledge of distant resources become crucial to the survival of herds during periods of extreme climatic events,” said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Charles Foley, lead author of the study.

Because climate change is expected to exacerbate droughts in Africa, the elephant families led by experienced females might have an evolutionary edge, suggested Nathalie Pettorelli, Zoological Society of London researcher and co-author.

We have learned so much about elephants in recent years. With each new “discovery” we realize just how advanced and sophisticated they are. That says a lot about our own ignorance.


Calves in herds led by older matriarchs that may remember where to get food during a famine have a better prospect of surviving, a new study suggests.

Photos with this entry courtesy of WCS

Related National Geographic News Stories:

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn