Animal Memories: Should Wildlife Research Methods Be Changed?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | June 30th, 2010 | 6 Comments
topic: Eco Travel

African elephants
There’s a great story that my mom used to tell regarding her family’s dog. It involved her brother, who was at the time a young man just returning from three long years in the Pacific theater during World War II. When he stepped out of the car and onto the lawn, the dog walked up to greet him, took a good look and a sniff and then began to jump and dance around uncontrollably. She did that for about 30 minutes straight. When she finally settled down, it wasn’t two minutes before she got up and expressed her joy all over again. She repeated this 30-to-two-minute cycle for the remainder of the day.

Those of us who are close to our pets know without a doubt that animals form and hold memories much like us: how much fun it was to go to the lake; that treats are given out at drive-up bank windows; the way to the veterinarian (when I turn onto that street, I inevitably hear whimpers); and the faces of people they love, despite an absence of years. But now, there is scientific evidence from the wild world to back up our belief.

Total crow recall

In the first formal study of human face recognition in wild birds, John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows could identify individual researchers — as much as four years later.


Crows do not forgive nor forget. © Candice Gaukel Andrews

To test the crows’ recognition of faces separately from that of clothing, gait, mannerisms or other characteristics unique to any one person, Dr. Marzluff and two students wore rubber face masks of cavemen while trapping and banding seven crows on the university’s Seattle campus. In the months that followed the banding, the researchers and several volunteers either donned one of the cavemen masks or a “neutral” Dick Cheney mask and walked around the grounds, ignoring the crows.

It turns out that crows neither forgive nor forget. They scolded those wearing the cavemen masks significantly more than they did those wearing the Dick Cheney ones — even if the researchers wore the masks upside down or disguised them with hats. In fact, poor Dick hardly provoked any reaction at all. And, over the past two years, the results have multiplied. While wearing the caveman mask on one recent stroll through campus, Dr. Marzluff reported that he was scolded by 47 of the 53 crows he met: that’s far more than the seven initially trapped. The crows, then, are learning to recognize threatening humans from others in their flock.

In another part of the country, Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who has trapped and banded crows in upstate New York for 20 years, says that he is regularly followed by birds that have partaken of his peanuts — and harassed by those he has trapped in the past.

Elephants never forget

In recent years, elephant attacks have made the headlines — both from those animals in captivity and those in the wild. Normally, elephants will go on the offensive only if provoked or threatened, so it’s difficult to understand why such docile beings are suddenly becoming aggressive. More and more tourists to Africa are reporting elephants that try to attack them following a snapped photo or after a Land Rover outing where the vehicle got a little too close.


Perhaps before we mount a camera on yet another penguin, we should think about the memories we're creating. © Candice Gaukel Andrews

In Africa, India, and China, elephants have destroyed villages. People in some places are afraid to come out of their homes or cross roads if elephants are grazing nearby.

Elephants in the wild have suffered much at human hands. People moving into their natural habitats provide them with less land to live on and less food to eat. These pachyderms have been captured, shot, taken from their mothers, and poached and killed for their tusks. Circus elephants are routinely abused (beaten with sharp, metal bull hooks), and zoos often do not have the resources to meet their requirements. It could be that elephants have simply had enough of us and are fighting back.

A change in policy

Gay Bradshaw, executive director of The Kerulos Center, a research and education animal sanctuary in Oregon, argues that the world’s elephants are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing them to behave more aggressively. According to Dr. Bradshaw, events that can cause post-traumatic stress include captivity, physical abuse, isolation and witnessing the loss or death of a loved one. We humans have purposely visited all of these conditions on our largest land-dwelling mammals.

If animals are as capable of forming memories as we are, should our wildlife research methods and practices toward them be changed?

Perhaps before we band another bird, radio-collar another wolf or mount a camera on another penguin, we should think about the memories we’re creating — and their consequences.

Happy trails,


Feature photo: It could be that elephants have simply had enough of us and are fighting back. © Pat Marron


  1. Fascinating article, Candy! Thanks.

    Niki | July 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. House cats, too, never forget.

    travis | July 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. I wonder if collectivist animals like ants have a communal memory?

    jack | July 1st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. I think we need to assume that our assumptions on what animals think or feel is pretty far off the mark. Memory for them is at least as important as it is for humans, because critter needs are more primal and based on survival.

    Art Hardy | July 2nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. It’s not the research that’s causing the problem, it’s poaching and other commercial ventures.

    It’s not surprising that animals can form memories, though. I’m confused as to why anyone would think so; even animals with much simpler nervous systems like insects can form memories.

    NineQuietLessons | July 6th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. I am convinced that the wild animals that I spend time around, soon learn to recognize me. I always try to portray myself as harmless and non-aggessive so that they will not be alarmed when I return another day.
    Animals also recognise human voices, so I talk in a low voice when I meet animals on the first and later visits.
    When animals are captured by researchers, they are very stressed and remember the frightening experience. I watched radio collared wolves in Yellowstone run and hide when they heard the sound of an approaching Helicopter.
    Researchers in Yellowstone chase the wolves to exhaustion by helicopter and dart them when they put radio collars on them. The wolves never forget.

    The Wild Photographer | February 3rd, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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