Elephant GPS

Images of elephants walking

An elephant never forgets … its GPS?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

When African elephants get wanderlust, they pack their trunks and hit the road! They follow trails created by generations of elephants moving between water and food across the Savannah. How come they don’t get lost?

Connie Allen from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues traveled to Botswana to investigate. 

Like dogs, elephants learn about each other by sniffing urine and poo. The team wondered if this also helps them navigate. So they planted cameras along popular trails. They filmed almost SIX HUNDRED elephants traveling in groups or wandering solo, and counted how many sniffed at the ground. 

Nosey much? Solo travelers sniffed the ground about one and a half times MORE than those in groups. Allen believes lonely elephants rely on smell when they don’t have friends to guide them. Urine from previous travelers might help point the way. 

Allen hopes this knowledge could be used to re-route endangered elephants away from dangerous areas.

Now that’s what I call following your nose… or trunk!

Reference: Allen, C.R.B., Brent, L.J.N., Motsentwa, T., Croft, D.P. Field evidence supporting monitoring of chemical information on pathways by male African elephants. Animal Behaviour, 176 (2021). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2021.04.004