A GPS-collared elephant takes a break near a watering hole. Collars like this were used in a new study tracking the movement of 15 African elephant groups in Namibia’s Etosha National Park for periods ranging from 2 months to over 4.5 years.
By pairing current and historic satellite imaging of vegetation with GPS data, a team led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley watched elephants rely on their long-term memory to guide them to sustenance.
During the dry season especially, elephants were more likely to ignore foraging opportunities around them and seek out spots they remembered being reliable sources of food and water in years past, even if it meant a much longer trek. In the unpredictable environment of the African savannah, it could provide the consistency necessary for survival.
Somewhat surprisingly, the herds strongly preferred to travel alongside man-made dirt roads in the park during the dry season, perhaps to conserve energy on the level terrain.