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

Elephants have large brains and great memory, but what’s exactly is going on in that massive head of theirs? Here’s what we know.

Elephants have arguably one of the most intelligent brains in the animal kingdom. On average, an elephant’s brain is three times larger than a human’s brain and has more neurons than humans do — 257 million fibers to humans’ mere 86 million. However, size alone doesn’t predict intelligence because it depends where the neurons are located. Elephants store almost 98% of neurons in their cerebellum, which linked to motor skills and sensory input. The size of the cerebellum is linked to the size of the elephant — their trunks alone have 100,000 muscle fibers. In the brain of an elephant the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain linked to higher intelligence, is not very robust. However some elephants have shown the ability to problem-solve with tools and recognize friends and family.

When it comes to the memory of an elephant, scientists may not grasp the extent of memory, but they know elephants have it by observing their behavior. Elephant matriarchs showed the ability to recall likely areas with water based on experience with previous droughts, and the ability to remember friends or foes. When played recordings of men from the Masai, a group known for killing elephants to protect grazing land, a majority of elephants reacted defensively and steered herds away from the sounds. In the end, researchers understand more about elephants and their long memories than they did decades ago, but how they remember things like water holes and voices from their youth remains elusive.

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