After 12 years apart, elephants may recognise the smell of a relative’s poop

Elephants have a reputation for having a long memory. Scientists have now found that elephants seem to recognise the smell of a relative’s poop – dung, manure, faeces, stools, excrement – even after 12 years apart.

New Scientist’s Life magazine (February 2023) reports on the findings of researchers at the University of Wuppertal in Germany who are studying elephant behaviour, especially elephant memory. 

Two mother-daughter pairs were about to reunite after years apart, and the researchers wanted to test their memories of each other. Would the mothers recognise their daughters’ manure, and would the daughters recognise their mothers’ manure?

One mother-daughter pair had been separated for 2 years, and the other mother-daughter pair had been separated for 12 years.

Researcher Franziska Hurner and her team collected 10-15 kilograms (22-33 pounds) of manure from the African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) to take from one zoo to another zoo. They collaborated with Zoo Wuppertal, Tierpark Berlin, Bergzoo Halle, and Serengeti-Park Hodenhagen to collect manure samples and to observe the behaviour of the four elephants.

Before the elephant reunion, the researchers tested the behaviour of the four elephants when they put the ‘family’ manure in front of them. The researchers also put manure from unrelated, non-kin elephants in front of them. 

The four elephants were alone during the experiment, and their reactions were filmed. When the four elephants smelled the manure from unrelated elephants, they walked away with no reaction. Whe they smelled the ‘family’ manure – from their mother or daughter – they repeatedly sniffed the manure and reacted in a variety of positive ways, such as making rumbling sounds or flapping their ears. The researchers called these reactions ‘excitement behaviour.’

The reunions of mother-daughter elephants were a great success. Each pair greeted each other almost immediately and embraced each other with their trunks.

The smell test was only conducted with the four elephants, which is a very small number for a scientific experiment, so it may not be a true test of memory. It was interesting though to note the change in behaviour when they smelled a relative’s manure after smelling the manure from a stranger. 

Nevertheless, the researchers thought the manure test was useful as a way of introducing new elephants to existing zoo populations. However, the researchers are cautious about the manure test because they are concerned about what would have happened if there had been a negative reaction to a relative’s manure?

Journal referenceAnimalsDOI: 10.3390/ani13040679

Location of photographs: Kenya

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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