They can form tight-knit matriarchal groups
Elephants are highly social creatures who bond tightly in complex, female-focused family units that are critical to elephant health and behaviour. “Each herd consists of several related individuals, and the matriarch is usually the mother, grandmother, aunt, or great-aunt to most of the elephants in the herd. It is her job to direct the movement and actions of the herd,” Montgomery says. “The entire herd is involved in watching after and teaching young elephants, and the herd members work together to protect one another.” Male elephants usually leave the herd as adolescents, but sometimes form bachelor groups of their own.
They can display empathy
Elephants’ intelligence and sociability lead them to display what seem to be actual emotions, challenging the notion that animals don’t have feelings. “They show extraordinary compassion and empathy towards each other, and have many things in common with us,” says Frank Pope, CEO of the conservation and research group Save the Elephants. “They have deep relationships with their family members, they celebrate the birth of babies, take care of their young like we do, and nurture and reassure them into their teens. They also mourn their dead, returning to grieve where friends or family died.”
They can remember their environment
“The elephant brain is a marvelous bit of nature,” Montgomery says. “There is no doubt that elephants do have a remarkable capacity for memory, and that memory serves them well in their natural habitats when it comes to locating food and water and avoiding danger.” In one study, elephant herds with older matriarchs fared better during a drought than those with younger matriarchs, possibly because the older females remembered how they survived a past drought. Elephants can also pass on the knowledge they’ve gathered from generation to generation, Pope says. The spectacular memory of elephants isn’t just an animal myth, however.