omsarti

November 13, 2007

Forgetting Is an Essential Part of Life

Filed under: Funny, General — omsarti @ 5:47 pm

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Every one of us would like to have a better memory, but would it really be advantageous to have a memory like an elephant? Does an elephant really have a good memory?

Elephants certainly have large brains, which may increase their memory capacity and aid their complex patterns of communication. It is not easy to measure with precision the memory span of an elephant; many working elephants can learn and remember a large number of commands. They also appear to recognise many humans, as well as individuals of their own species – even when separated from them for decades.

In the wild, herds of elephants tend to follow similar paths over the years, suggesting that memories are passed down through the generations. It is said that elephant herds have specific burial places and that they help their sick and infirm to return there to die. Elephant remains are often found in groups near water sources; however, this may be simply because malnourished elephants seek water in the hope of improving their condition. Elderly elephants gravitate towards the same water sources when their teeth become worn, as water plants are softer to eat, and many die there near the remains of others. So herds may remember the locations of water sources, but not primarily because of any elephant remains that may be there.

Some elephants have better memories than others. In 2001, a research team led by Karen McComb studied 21 elephant families over a seven-year period in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They found that the matriarchs leading the herds develop strong “social” memories that enable them to distinguish friends from foes by smell and by contact calls; the older the matriarch, the better her skills. The research confirmed that the better a matriarch is at recognising friends, the more time other family members have to feed and breed in safety and the more calves they produce.

So do elephants have better memories than other animals? One animal whose memory might rival that of the elephant is the Clark’s nutcracker bird of the high mountain regions of the American West, which hoards food for the winter. In the autumn, each bird stashes away up to 100,000 pine seeds in thousands of different caches, with only five to 10 seeds in each to minimise squirrel theft. The hiding places are dotted around an area of 20km2. Some six months later, the bird finds all these stockpiles, even if the sites are a metre deep in snow.

I think we can agree that elephants – particularly the matriarchs – do have good memories. Whether they deserve their status as the memory experts of the animal kingdom is doubtful: they have a serious rival in Clark’s nutcracker bird. The word “birdbrain”, implying limited intelligence, may not be such an insult after all.

{ The Independent | Continue reading }

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