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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 Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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 Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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