An elephant never forgets, at least according to researches in Etosha National Park in Namibia. According to the recent report, elephants have a preference for reliable food and water sources and utilize their long-term memory and cognitive skills to return to areas that, in the past, contained more of these resources. In Namibia’s dry climate, these memories can mean the difference between life and death for African elephants.
“African savannas are unpredictable with a prolonged dry season,” Miriam Tsalyuk of the University of California Berkeley and lead author of the paper said in a statement released by the Ecological Society of America “..knowledge of the long-term availability of resources is highly advantageous."
The study examined the movements of animals in relation to resource availability to determine how wildlife react and adjust to their changing surroundings.
While most animals consistently reevaluate their climate as the seasons and overall climate change, scientists weren’t certain how much, if at all, these animals remembered of their previous locations and, if they did, how vital these recollections were to their long-term survival.
Plotting a Path Through the Savannah
To begin understanding this relationship, researchers used GPS collars to track 15 elephants groups from 2 months to over 4 and a half years. After plotting their movements, Tsalyuk and her team compared the paths with maps of surface water and human-made constructs to search for patterns of behavior.
"Most ecological research to date examines how wildlife responds to the current environmental state," said Tsalyuk. "However, animals use spatial and social memory to return to locations that have been beneficial in the past. Satellite imagery provides information about these past conditions and unravels the complexity of wildlife spatial use."
The study appears to have confirmed that African elephants carry with them the memories of previous resource hotspots. Forage conditions from up to a decade ago proved to be better indicators of where the elephants would go than the area’s current circumstances, a characteristic that became even more pronounced in the dry season.
"The results were very surprising indeed," said Tsalyuk. "We thought that if we could capture the vegetation conditions as close as possible to the time the elephants passed there, we could better explain a preference for a particular location. But we found the complete opposite - elephants have a stronger preference for locations where forage conditions have been better for many years, over the forage availability they see around them at the moment."
Taking the Road More Traveled
While certain behaviors were expected, such as the elephant’s preference for remaining close to water, others seemed to guide the herds into potentially dangerous conditions. According to the report, the elephants appeared to favor walking close to roads rather than in the more secluded savannah.
Roads, and their potential to carry human poachers and wildlife traffickers, are often dangerous places for wildlife to be, but Tysalyuk believes it makes sense for the species. Particularly during the dry season, the dirt roads common within Etosha National Park can help elephants move more efficiently between water and food resources. By conserving the energy they’d otherwise lose to traversing the uneven natural terrain, herds can reach more resources faster.
Essential for a Healthy Ecosystem
Understanding these patterns of behaviors and how they evolve over time is critical to determining the effects elephants have on their habitat and the other animals within it.
Elephants are considered to be vital ecosystem engineers who, through their actions, control and assist in the availability of resources and the overall livelihood of their environment. Through eating, drinking, walking, and foraging, they uproot trees, disperse seeds, firm the soil, and cause a wild host of other environmental impacts that, in turn, affect the other wildlife around them.
Many species rely on the behaviors of elephants to ensure their own survival. However, elephants populations have suffered a dramatic decline in recent decades as poaching, habitat destruction, and human expansion threaten their own endurance. Elephants as essential for a healthy ecosystem in Namibia and across Africa, and by protecting them long into the future, we also protect the species that depend on them.
At Stop Poaching Now, we currently sponsor two projects in Zambia that strive to protect this balance by providing safety and support for these vulnerable creatures. If you’d like to help ensure these elephants and the species who rely on them survive long into the future, join us today a Stop Poaching Now to be a part of the fight to end poaching.