New research has proven elephants have exceptional memories of their habitats and resources, which contributes to their survival.

For centuries the memories of elephants have been the theme of fables, but new research from George Wittemyer of Colorado State University’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology proves elephants’ tremendous memories of their habitats and their resources contributes to their survival in challenging environments. 

The study, titled “elucidating the significance of spatial memory on movement decisions by African savannah elephants using state-space models,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society-B, is the first of its kind to use advanced statistical analyses of high-resolution tracking data to investigate fundamental questions of elephant decision making.

“It is really exciting to engage with the new windows into wildlife behaviour that technology is opening,” said Prof Wittemyer, who is also chairman of the Save the Elephants Scientific Board.

“The intricate knowledge we are gaining from high-resolution tracking is driving a ‘big data’ revolution in behavioural ecology and wildlife conservation.”

Researchers used advanced animal tracking technology to analyse the movements of elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The creatures demonstrated various types of movement depending on the context of the situation. Movements to access waterholes were distinct from movements in other contexts – being rapid and directed.

Using these distinct movements for waters, the team found elephants consistently chose to access the closest water point to their location, beginning purposeful movements towards water across great distances.

The greatest distance recorded was a straight-line movement to water nearly 50km away. Study author Leo Polansky added: “We have anecdotes of incredible, singular long-distance migrations of elephants to far-flung waterholes throughout Africa.

“Exploring their movement behaviour relative to water and their selection among the suite of comparably close waterholes presented a great opportunity to study their decision processes and how these are influenced by environmental and social factors.”

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