You may have heard about people having “elephantine memories.” Let us today probe into the “reputation” and “reality” about elephants.
Reputation : frightened of mice, have “elephantine” memories, when it’s time to die, they travel with purpose to elephant graveyards to grieve and they are related to HYDRAXES.
Reality: They are frightened of bees, have good memories. Graveyards are a myth, but elephants clearly show interest in the remains of their dead. All living organisms are related to HYDRAXES.
HYDRAXES are those vaguely rodent-like animals that live in Africa. This is one of those little factoids ( elephants are related to hydraxes) that people like to float. It is also an entirely banal observation. At some level, after all, every thing is related to hydraxes. Therefore, the more precise claim that elephants are the closest relatives to hydraxes, is misleading. First, it implies a recent common ancestor. Yet, these two lineages have been going their separated ways for around 65 million years. Second, it is probably wrong. Several lines of molecular evidence indicate that elephants are more closely related to DUGONGS & MANATEES than they are to HYDRAXES.
Our obsession with juxtaposing the big and the small is also evident in the belief that elephants are afraid of mice. This notion may date back to Pliny the Elder’s : “Of all living Creatures, they most detest a Mouse,” he wrote in The Natural History. Walt Disney ran with the idea in DUMBO, in which Timothy Q Mouse terrifies the circus elephants before befriending the eponymous hero. But is there anything behind this stereotype ? “There’s all this nonsense about mice running up elephants’ trunks”, says Craig Bruce of the Zoological Society of London. But there’s no serious evidence for elephantine MUROPHOBIA (fear of mice).
What is clear is that elephants “do not like bees”. When recordings of “disturbed African honey bees” are played to elephant families resting under trees in Kenya, the elephants either walk away or, more commonly, run. This and other findings are behind the “Elephants and Bees Project, an initiative to explore the possibility of using bees to deter crop-raiding elephants in Africa.
How about memory ? Not only can elephants remember landmarks and migration routes, they have an incredible “social memory” too. Working in the Amboseli Natural Park in Kenya during the 1990s, researchers used playback experiments to explore the way in which elephants communicate. In one case, they played the call of an individual, that died almost 2yrs earlier, to her family. The elephants crowded round the loudspeaker and called back a response characteristic of a “strong social bond.” In another setting, where a female had switched to another group, her original family still responded to her call 12yrs after she had left.
However, there is no reason to think that elephants have graveyards, where old animals go to die. It is true that there are large aggregations of elephant bones, but drought and hunting are much more likely explanations for them. ,There is better evidence, both from anecdotes and from experiments, for another remarkable idea : that elephants mourn their dead. In her book “Elephant Memories”, conservation pioneer —- Cynthia Moss recalls how she brought the jawbone of a recently deceased matriarch back to her camp. Several days later, The dead elephant’s family happened to pass nearby, and came to inspect the jawbone. The animal that showed the most interest, lingering long after the others had moved on, was the matriarch’s 7-year-old son.
Moss and her colleagues have followed up on such anecdotes with controlled experiments designed to explore this behaviour more systematically. When presented with three objects —— a piece of wood, an elephant skull and a bit of ivory ——– elephants showed a marked interest in exploring the ivory and clear preference in the skull over the piece of wood. Although the researchers were unable to demonstrate that elephants are more interested in the remains of relatives than those of non-relative, they concluded that “elephants may, through tactile or olfactory cues, recognise tusks from individuals they have been familiar with in life.” All of this confirms, that elephants really are extraordinarily intelligent creatures with a profound emotional range.
———— Henry Nicholls (BBC)