Elephants never forget, goes the old adage. But now, new research suggests that this may actually be the case, rather than an anthropomorphic quip. Reported in the Daily Mail, among other places, researchers have concluded that Asian elephants really do never forget old friends, and that in this sense they are natural experts on social networks, the buzzword of the early 21st Century.
It has long been established that elephants are social animals, but it had previously been assumed that they tended to congregate in relatively small family groups. Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania concluded that herds of elephants have a much larger social network as they recognise distant groups through their sense of smell and by calling to them over large distances (grumbling elephant calls are too low-pitched to be distinguished by human ears, but elephants can hear them over a distance of six miles or so).
Dr Shermin de Silva, who wrote the study published recently in the journal BMC Ecology, found that the elephants’ social inclinations were similar to those of humans, with some elephants having far fewer friends than other ‘social butterflies’, but that the more private members of the herd formed closer attachments and were much more loyal to the few friends that they did have.
The study involved detailed observation of over a hundred adult female Asian elephants in Sri Lanka’s Dr Shermin de Silva, over a 20 month period. One observation was the way in which the herd’s social bonds became stronger during dry seasons. When water and food became scarce, the elephants began sticking together in larger groups, to protect food supplies. Given that Asian elephants spend around 16 hours a day eating, and need to consume as much as 50 gallons of water a day, food and water are essential considerations for any elephant. The herd tended to congregate in large enough groups to drive unfamiliar elephants from other herds away from waterholes and food sources.
Dr Shermin de Silva added: “Individuals do not mix randomly within the population , nor are they always with the same companions, but rather they shuffle amongst a subset of preferred companions.”
Elephants’ social interactions were known to be complex, but now it appears as though they are even more intricate than previously suspected. The social habits of these beautiful but increasingly endangered animals will doubtless be the subject of much further research in the years ahead.