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Is It True That Elephants Never Forget?

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Elephants are incredible creatures. The largest land mammals on earth, they show a wide range of behavioral and emotional patterns in their up-to-60-year lifespans. They grieve over the bodies of dead herd members, and can even recognize their own reflections in a mirror. And, of course, there's that old saying: "Elephants never forget." While it may be an exaggeration, there's more truth to the adage than you might realize. 

In the wild, an elephant’s memory is key to its survival—and its herd’s. Each herd has a matriarchal structure, with one older female in charge. When younger males in the group reach sexual maturity—usually around 14 years of age—they leave the herd to roam solo or occasionally form groups with other males. Proof of elephants' long memories lies in their behavior: When confronted with an unfamiliar elephant, matriarchs will huddle in defensive positions because they realize that those elephants could pose a threat to the herd's safety.

Science has also proven that elephants have great memories. In 2007, researchers at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland placed urine samples in front of female elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya; according to Scientific American, the elephants "acted up" when they smelled urine that didn't come from an elephant in their herd. The researchers concluded that elephants can recognize and track as many as 30 of their companions. "Imagine taking your family to a crowded department store and the Christmas sales are on," said psychologist Richard Byrne, one of the scientists who participated in the study. "What a job to keep track of where four or five family members are. These elephants are doing it with 30 traveling-mates." Elephants “almost certainly know every [member] in their group,” Byrne said, and exhibit cognitive abilities “far in advance of anything other animals have been shown to have.” 

Elephants don't just remember companions they've spent long stretches of time with, either. A pair of captive elephants have shown that these animals can recognize other friendly elephants even when they had only spent short periods of time together. At The Elephant Sanctuary—a non-profit organization based in Hohenwald, Tennessee, that is the U.S.'s largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically for endangered elephants—in 1999, an elephant named Jenny became very animated when a new elephant named Shirley arrived. After looking into the animals’ backgrounds, workers at the Sanctuary found that the two had performed with the same circus for only a few months—22 years earlier.

Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.” Studies have also shown matriarchs who have lived through dry spells before will lead their herds to more fertile land, while younger matriarchs who haven't experienced a drought are more likely to stay put.

The elephants are able to use their whopping 10.5-pound brains to encode identification and survival details, imprinting the key data to their memory to be recalled later. But an elephant's amazing memory comes only with age and experience—and older, larger elephants are often a target of hunters. “The tragedy," says Lewis, "is that when one of these [elephants] is lost to poaching, the information dies with her,” leaving the rest of the herd at a disadvantage—and having severe consequences for the species as a whole.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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