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GPS tracking data gives insight into elephant memory

Elephants have always been known for their exceptional memories. Now, with the help of detailed GPS tracking data, researchers are one step closer to understanding why.

The study, co-authored by George Wittemyer, a professor in the department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, analyzed the movement patterns of elephants in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

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While studying the spatial needs of elephants in Kenya, Wittemyer said they began to notice incredible movements and interesting space use patterns that indicated purposeful behaviors. However, the complex landscape of the study area made it difficult to isolate exactly what was influencing these movements and decisions.

Etosha National Park is a much simpler landscape. The fenced park contains manmade and maintained waterholes throughout its “flat, uninteresting terrain,” according to Wittemyer. This allowed the team to analyze movements specifically related to water, a constant, static resource in this environment.

Ten elephants were fitted with tracking collars and monitored for three years. High resolution tracking systems have allowed researchers to track animals over time periods and distances that would be impossible by foot or in a vehicle, according to Leo Polansky, an associate researcher in the University of California-Davis anthropology department and lead author of the paper.

“In some ways, this research would not be possible without this modern technology,” Polansky wrote in an email to the Collegian.

The tracking data showed that the elephants would switch from resting or foraging and start to walk very quickly in a straight line towards waterholes, Wittemyer said. One elephant traveled over 50 kilometers to the closest water source, demonstrating the large scale of their spatial awareness.

This study concluded that elephants are able to locate resources over large distances using strictly spatial memory, according to Wittemyer. The landscape is not distinct and has similar vegetation and topography throughout, making it difficult to identify an area by landmarks. Elephants have a highly developed sense of smell, but the tracking data shows that they are not following any wind patterns that would direct them towards water.

“They just have a spatial map inside their minds the way we do, and they’re using that to move around the system,” Wittemyer said. “It just turns out theirs is probably really precise and at larger scales than most of what we do.”

The elephants displayed this movement behavior over 90 percent of the time. When they did not go to the closest waterhole, it was typically because they were moving to a new area of the park to find a better food source.

“Their decisions related to water and space use were precise and all of them purposeful,” Wittemyer said. “They’re basically minimizing the time they spend moving and maximizing the time they spend eating, and minimizing the time they spend moving to get water.”

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Polansky said he was surprised at how strongly the movement behaviors were supported by the tracking data.

“Data from wild systems can be incredibly noisy,” Polansky wrote. “This was one of the cleanest patterns I’ve come across in my own research.”

Elephants have a highly developed hippocampus, which has been identified in the human brain to be important for navigation, according Wittemyer. These results will help give insight into human neurobiology and the decision-making processes of other animals.

In the wild, animals have to move around and make decisions based on more dynamic resources. They also have to account for dangers like human predation and poaching, which are a huge threat to wild ecosystems and elephants in particular, according to Polansky.

“We know how intelligent they are, and how complex they are,” Wittemyer said. “We just took this very oversimplified situation to take a first look at it, but in reality it’s much more complicated.”

Collegian Reporter Emily Vavra can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @vivalavavra.

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