The Asian variety remember old pals and have larger social networks of â€˜friendsâ€™ than scientists previously thought, a study has shown.
Researchers also found that just like humans, some elephants are social butterflies while others prefer to stick to a close-knit group of friends.
Past studies suggested elephants usually live in small groups centred around females and their young while adult males live independently.
However, the study found that though males do live apart, females and their young actually have the sort of complex network of friends, relatives and acquaintances normally seen in humans.
Study author Dr Shermin de Silva from the University of Pennsylvania said: â€˜Elephants are able to track one another over large distances by calling to each other and using their sense of smell.
â€˜So the â€œherdâ€ of elephants one sees at any given time is often only a fragment of a much larger social group.
â€˜Our work shows that they are able recognize their friends and renew these bonds even after being apart for a long time.â€™
The study also found that some are more sociable than others and those who had few friends tended to be loyal to them, while those with a larger circle were less so.Researchers studied more than 100 female adult Asian elephants in the Uda Walawe National Park, in Sri Lanka, for 20 months.
While many kept the same friends, 16 per cent changed their â€˜top fiveâ€™ associates, the researchers report in the journal BMC Ecology.
The study found bonds are strong in the dry season and suggested social networks help protect food and water supplies. These are important as elephants eat for 16 hours every day and drink up to 50 gallons of water.
The creatures tended to hang around in larger groups when water was scarce. The bonds were strong enough to drive away unfamiliar elephants away from watering holes.
Dr de Silva added: â€˜Most individuals have a few strong ties as well as a few consistent ties maintained over several seasons with some of their associates.
â€˜Individuals do not mix randomly within the population , nor are they always with the same companions, but rather they shuffle amongst a subset of preferred companions.â€™
There are three species of elephant, Asian, African Savannah and African Forest.
The Asian variety are smaller and have more compact ears than their African cousins. They have just one finger-like tip on the end of their trunk, unlike the two found on Africans.
Elephants communicate with others using grumbles too low for human hears to pick up and the sounds travel up to six miles.
They are fascinated by the bones and tusks of dead elephants and show concern over injured or weak family members.