Do elephants have long memories? Yes, the ‘sniff test’ proves it.

The elephant is said to have a long memory. It is a species of animal which is known for this attribute. Now, the “sniff test” has proved it unquestionably. This is a nice story, too, of the reunion of a mother with her daughter after they were separated for 12 years in captivity.

Elephants do have long memories as proved by the smell test
Elephants do have long memories as proved by the smell/sniff test. Image: DALL-E.

A German zoo decided to reunite mother elephant and her daughter. A scientist, Franziska Hörner from the University of Wuppertal in Germany, decided to take the opportunity to check out the elephant’s memory.

Mother elephant, Pori, had not seen her daughter Tana for 12 years. They put some of Tana’s droppings in an enclosure and led Pori into the enclosure. The objective was to see whether the mother recognised the smell of her daughter through her droppings.

When she entered the enclosure, her behaviour confirmed to the scientists involved in the study that:

  • Elephants have an excellent sense of smell
  • To elephants family is very important
  • Elephants never forget!

Franziska said:

“First, the elephant froze. I think she had to process what she was smelling. And then she just started to show very intense reactions.”

Pori paced backwards and forwards. She flapped ears and swung her trunk. She made rumbling noises. Later she rubbed herself in her daughter’s droppings. She wanted to cover herself in the smell of her daughter in the words of Franziska.

Does this remind you of companion animals by the way? The way that cats rub against us when they greet us. They take our scent from our legs and deposit their sent onto us. A merging of smells – scent exhange. It is a very similar type of behaviour.

Franziska has written up her experiment and it has been published in a paper in the journal Animal. She studied four elephant reunions. There were two mother-daughter pairs in the survey.

What happened when they put the droppings of an unrelated elephant in the enclosure? The mother elephants did not respond at all; they were entirely indifferent.

Franziska said that it was a great privilege to watch the moment when the Pori realised that she were smelling her daughter after such a long time.

She added:

“It just goes to prove how impressive the cognitive abilities of those animals are. And I hope it might change a bit the perspective we have on them. It’s one thing to guess how smart they are. It’s another thing to know.”

Smell is vital to elephants as a way of interpreting and understanding the world and navigating it.

Franziska added:

“Humans are said to have a very good sense of smell, but we don’t need it so much anymore. But for elephants, it’s crucial. In the wild they have to smell where water is. During the dry seasons, they have to have a knowledge of their surroundings. They have to recognise from a distance whether approaching animals are dangerous or not dangerous. Whether elephants that are approaching are related or unrelated. That’s important to them for safety reasons, and also for the family bonds they have.”

When Pori was actually reunited with Tana the behaviours were immense and impressive. The elephants were ecstatic. Franziska further adds:

“They kind of embraced each other immediately, performing something we call a greeting ceremony where they unwind their trunks and they click their tusks and they touch the eyes and the mouth with their trunk. So, it’s like humans. When I meet my mother again, I would obviously hug her.”

My sincere thanks to The Times newspaper of today, Wednesday, March 1, 2023 and the journalist who wrote up this story, Tom Whipple, the science editor of The Times newspaper.

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