Do Elephants Have Good Memory? (Do Elephants Ever Forget?)

Studies have shown that elephants’ brains function as humans. In fact, it is similar to humans in terms of its structure and complexity. In the animal kingdom, elephants are as intelligent as dolphins and chimpanzees.

Do elephants have good memories? Yes, elephants have one of the most powerful memories of all nonhuman species. This extraordinary memory is the key to their survival. 

They even recognize humans and other elephants they have been separated or interacted with many years ago. The experiences stored in their brain as memories help them surpass future difficulties.

Here are some facts about the elephant’s great memory and the reason behind this skill.

Do Elephants Forget?

Elephants indeed have a great memory. However, it does not mean that they do not forget a single thing.

According to research, people who directly worked with an elephant observed that these mammals remember injuries in the past. They can even hold grudges against those people who hurt them or their families.

A study of African elephants shows that these mammals react negatively to the smell or sight of particular clothing or voice of a person they have had a bad encounter with in the past.

This reaction has triggered the animal negatively since it may have resembled someone who perhaps abused them before. It is just some proof that elephants do not easily forget even if years have passed.

Another is that elephant’s extraordinary memory lies in their behavior. When elephants are confronted with an unfamiliar elephant, these matriarchs will huddle in defensive positions. It’s because they have realized that those elephants may pose a threat to the herd’s safety.

How Long Do Elephants Remember Things?

These enormous mammals may have had poor eyesight, but they never forget a face.

Elephants can remember and recognize up to 30 companions by sight or smell. They would recall locations or places after their last visit, even if it would take a more extended period.

There are cases reported that elephants could still recognize other elephants whom they have encountered in the past.

A case of an Asian elephant who became anxious and is hardly contained when introduced with a newcomer. Little did the caretaker know that the reason behind this behavior is that the elephant feels euphoria of finally reuniting with the other elephant.

It turns out that the two elephants have seen each other and briefly crossed their paths years earlier.

It has been noted by scientists as a remarkable power of recall.

According to research in Kenya, elephants, specifically the matriarchs, hold a store of social knowledge that their family can hardly do without.

Another study shows that herds of elephants during a severe drought in 1993 do not only recognize one another but also remember their routes to alternate food and water sources when their usual areas dry up.

Here is a great video explaining this more in-depth:

Why Do Elephants Have Such A Great Memory?

Scientists believe that elephants have a great memory because of the size of its brain. Their brain weighs approximately 11 pounds. It is the largest among all land mammals containing many neurons that play a significant role in their memory.

These huge mammals have a highly developed hippocampus and cerebral cortex. These parts of the brain are located at the temporal lobe that is as large as their body size.

This temporal lobe is devoted to communication, language, spatial memory, and cognition. It is responsible for the elephant’s willpower and skills in problem-solving. Aside from that, these parts grant them extraordinary memories.

The hippocampus, which is part of the temporal lobe, plays a significant role in learning and memory.

A study also says that the elephant’s brain has as many cortical neurons as humans have. And also, they have larger pyramidal neurons compared to humans, which are responsible for cognitive functioning.

It floats the idea that elephants could be superior to humans in terms of memory skills.

Elephant’s good memories have a significant role in terms of their survival. It also impacted why they live so long, approximately 50 to 60 years on average.

It is found out that elephants transmit their wealth of knowledge from generation to generation through the female elephants.

It relates to their survival because the shared information is beneficial to recall essential survival strategies such as the path to sources of water and food across great distances.

Where Do The “Elephants Never Forget” Phrase Come From?

This “elephants never forget” phrase has been first attested in the United States by W. Martyn. This phrase is a proverb of Greek origin.

Also, the origin of this phrase goes back to the observations that elephants follow the same paths and even hand down memories of directions or places across generations.

It has been a common saying that people believed that elephants do have amazing long-term memories.

Do Elephants Have A Better Memory Than Humans?

Some studies are suggesting that elephants might have a better memory than humans.

This mammal’s brain consists of many cortical neurons as human brains and has a larger specialized neuron that plays a crucial role in cognitive function than humans do.

Moreover, the elephant’s hippocampus has been examined and compared to other animals, including humans. This hippocampus is the center of emotion and memory.

Results show that in terms of their absolute size, elephants and humans are just relatively the same. However, it varies with its volume.

The volume of the elephant’s hippocampus is slightly more prominent compared to humans.

Nonetheless, elephants are known to their memory, yet these mammals and human’s hippocampus are pretty similar.

Both the cortex structure of the elephant and humans are pretty similar, and the number of neurons present in that area differs. There are a smaller number of neurons found in the cortex of the elephant than in humans.

This part of the brain is highly responsible for many higher-order brain functions, including memory.

Do Elephants Remember Humans?

With the elephant’s powerful memory, they could remember humans as both their friends and enemies.

There was a case that demonstrates the elephant’s incredible long-term memory. It is a zookeeper who got separated from a female elephant in the zoo 12 years ago.

After years of separation, when the elephant heard this person’s voice using a vocal command, it immediately walked up to him and raised her trunk. It shows that the elephant could still recognize its past caretaker.

These mammals also remember humans with whom they have formed a special relationship aside from their caretakers. There are reports that elephants can still recall someone with who they had interacted for five years.

Here is a video of a zookeeper who reunited with an elephant after 15 years. The elephant still remembers him. It’s incredible.

Can We Say Elephants Are Intelligent?

Definitely, elephants are highly intelligent mammals.

They have a powerful memory, discriminatory abilities, deep thoughts and emotions, and other skills related to problem-solving.

Elephant’s brain size, particularly on its cerebral cortex, is as big as its size. Thus, it contains millions of neurons that play a significant role in higher cognitive functioning.

These mammals are undeniably manifesting a variety of behaviors. They can use tools, mimic the sound, play, learn, and even feel complex emotions. Also, elephants could empathize with other animals and even with humans.

They are selfless and compassionate to others who are distressed. Elephants in captivity also show great skill in performing tasks. They even need little to minimal instruction.

These mammals do not need much training, for they can learn quickly by just observing people around them. These intelligent creatures can identify voices, language and understand human body language.

They even have a great sense of hearing. Elephants can send vocalizations over long distances. And they could even make various sounds such as snorts, roars, cries, and barks.

Also, they are one-of-a-kind animals who understand the concept of death and even mourn for the loss of their loved ones.

Related: Are Elephants Smart?


In summary, the elephant’s memory is legendary. They have the best retention of things, animals, places, people, or events.

They could even recall distant watering holes, other elephants, people they have interacted with within a short period. This recollection is still made possible even over time.

Having a great memory is just one of the many exciting attributes and characteristics that this mammal has.

While these elephants continue to amaze humans with their ability to remember and not forget, it is crucial to make sure that these extraordinary creatures do not vanish on earth.


Image credits – Canva

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I'm David, and safari has been my passion since I was a little boy - I grew up in South Africa. I love to help spread knowledge about safari, so let me know if you have any questions. Read more