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"Crucial in deciding between friend or foe"
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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Why elephants don't forget
Baby elephant
Older female elephants have a 'social memory'
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The saying that elephants never forget has been backed by science.

And it seems that the old adage may be particularly true in the case of matriarchs, who lead the herd.

Elephants can certainly build up a memory over the years and hold on to it

Karen McComb, animal communication expert
A study of wild African elephants has revealed that dominant females build up a social memory as they get older, enabling them to recognise "friendly" faces.

They signal whether an outsider is a friend or foe to the rest of the herd, allowing family members to focus on feeding and breeding when there is no danger.


The older and more experienced the matriarch, the better she is at recognising old friends, and the more calves the family is likely to produce.

Ivory protests in New Delhi
Poaching the matriarch could affect the survival chances of the whole herd
The findings have important implications for conservation - poachers tend to kill the bigger, older elephants, thereby decreasing the survival chances of the whole group.

"Elephants can certainly build up a memory over the years and hold on to it," study team leader Dr Karen McComb, of Sussex University, Brighton, UK, told BBC News Online. "The matriarch plays a key role, because she has time to build up a social knowledge, the others depend on her."

Elephants often travel large distances in search of food. A typical group of elephants consists of a matriarch grandmother and a number of her daughters and granddaughters.


Male African elephants leave the family units at an early age and remain single or in small bachelor groups.

When the female elephants encounter other individuals they do not recognise, family members bunch together defensively to protect their young.

The scientists found that older matriarchs were better at picking out genuine strangers by means of the elephants' smell or contact calls, allowing the herd to spend more time relaxing and breeding.

McComb and colleagues studied 21 elephant families in Amboseli National park, Kenya, over the course of seven years.

They believe that anything which removes the grandmother from the family, such as poaching, or a possible lifting of the international ban on the ivory trade, would have a significant effect on reproduction.

The research is published in the journal Science.

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