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Elephants do not have the greatest eyesight in the animal kingdom, but they never forget a face. Carol Buckley at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., for instance, reports that in 1999 resident elephant Jenny became anxious and could hardly be contained when introduced to newcomer Shirley, an Asian elephant.
As the animals checked one another out with their trunks, Shirley, too, became animated and the two seemingly old friends had what appeared to be an emotional reunion. "There was this euphoria," sanctuary founder Buckley says. "Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other's scars. I've never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression."
Turns out the two elephants had briefly crossed paths years earlier. Buckley knew that Jenny had performed with the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus, before coming to the sanctuary in 1999, but she knew little about Shirley's background. She did a little digging, only to discover that Shirley had been in the circus with Jenny for a few months—23 years earlier.
Remarkable recall power, researchers believe, is a big part of how elephants survive. Matriarch elephants, in particular, hold a store of social knowledge that their families can scarcely do without, according to research conducted on elephants at Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
Researchers from the University of Sussex in England discovered that elephant groups with a 55-year-old matriarch (elephants live around 50 to 60 years) were more likely to huddle in a defensive posture than those with a matriarch aged 35 when confronted by an unfamiliar elephant. The reason: they were aware such strangers were likely to start conflicts with the group and possibly harm calves, Karen McComb, a psychologist and animal behaviorist at Sussex, and her colleagues reported in Science.
Other researchers, who studied three herds of elephants during a severe 1993 drought at Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, found that they not only recognize one another but also recall routes to alternate food and water sources when their usual areas dry up.
The scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York City reported in Biology Letters that pachyderm groups with matriarchs, ages 38 and 45, left the parched park, apparently in search of water and grub, but the ones with a younger matriarch, age 33, stayed put.