Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 251–263 | Cite as

Spatial mapping shows that some African elephants use cognitive maps to navigate the core but not the periphery of their home ranges

  • Andrea PresottoEmail author
  • Richard Fayrer-Hosken
  • Caitlin Curry
  • Marguerite Madden
Original Paper


Strategies of navigation have been shown to play a critical role when animals revisit resource sites across large home ranges. The habitual route system appears to be a sufficient strategy for animals to navigate while avoiding the cognitive cost of traveling using the Euclidean map. We hypothesize that wild elephants travel more frequently using habitual routes to revisit resource sites as opposed to using the Euclidean map. To identify the elephants’ habitual routes, we created a python script, which accounted for frequently used route segments that constituted the habitual routes. Results showed elephant navigation flexibility traveling at Kruger National Park landscape. Elephants shift strategies of navigation depend on the familiarity of their surroundings. In the core area of their home range, elephants traveled using the Euclidean map, but intraindividual differences showed that elephants were then converted to habitual routes when navigating within the less familiar periphery of their home range. These findings are analogous to the recent experimental results found in smaller mammals that showed that rats encode locations according to their familiarity with their surroundings. In addition, as recently observed in monkeys, intersections of habitual routes are important locations used by elephants when making navigation decisions. We found a strong association between intersections and new segment usage by elephants when they revisit resource sites, suggesting that intersection choice may contribute to the spatial representations elephants use when repeatedly revisiting resource sites.


Navigation flexibility Animal navigation Spatial cognition African elephants Habitual routes Geographic information system 



We thank D. Grobler, J.J. van Altena, and J. Kirkpatrick for the support during data collection. In addition, we sincerely thank the staff of Kruger National Park, SANParks, especially J. Malan and M. Kruger. We thank Monique A. R. Udell and two anonymous reviewers who contributed for the helpful comments. We would like to thank Dr. Hamilton for editing the first version of this manuscript and for technical support. We would like to thank Gordon Martin for language improvements.

Author contributions

AP analyzed data and wrote the paper. RF-H collected data. CC developed the python script and contributed to language improvement. MM contributed to data analysis. All authors contributed to comments and improving the manuscript.


This study was conducted with no grant funds.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interests.

Ethical approval

Data collection used in this research complied with protocols approved by the Animal Behavior Society and the Animal Research Ethics Committee of the School of Veterinary of the University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA, and SANParks legal requirements under the permit BERHJ9.

Supplementary material

10071_2019_1242_MOESM1_ESM.docx (9.2 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 9445 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and GeosciencesSalisbury UniversitySalisburyUSA
  2. 2.San Diego Zoo, Institute for Conservation ResearchEscondidoUSA
  3. 3.Center for Geospatial ResearchUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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