Elephants have long been known to linger at the carcasses of dead mates.
Across much of Africa elephants are killed for their tusks. In the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) the jumbos are killed for their skins, to which locals ascribe medicinal properties.
When we kill elephants, we kill highly social and intelligent beings. Not only that, but by killing some elephants we cause lasting grief to others. The jumbos, scientists argue in a study, mourn their dead in a way. The pachyderms, it seems, grieve over their late-lamented relatives, herd mates and companions.
The researchers reached this conclusion after reviewing data from field observations of elephants that lingered at the carcasses of their dead mates. They also surveyed the available literature on how elephants respond to the remains of other elephants. In all, they reviewed 32 original observations of wild elephant carcasses from 12 sources across Africa.
Often, the field observers noted, pachyderms nudged and touched carcasses. They also returned to the remains repeatedly during varying stages of decay from fresh carcasses to sun-bleached bones. “Elephants show broad interest in their dead regardless of the strength of former relationships with the dead individual,” write Shifra Z. Goldenberg and George Wittemyer, the two experts behind the study.
Elephants have long been known to linger at the carcasses of other jumbos. They have been observed trying to lift or pull dead elephants as if seeking to raise them. “During our own observations, we also witnessed elephants visiting and revisiting carcasses during which they engaged in extensive investigative behavior, stationary behavior, self-directed behavior, temporal gland streaming, and heightened social interactions with other elephants in the vicinity of a carcass,” the researchers explain.
While it remains a bit of a mystery why elephants engage in this kind of behavior, we do know that the pachyderms are highly intelligent and social animals with famously long memories. Elephants in a herd live in complex social groups and form relationships that last decades.
Arguing that elephants mourn their dead may risk anthropomorphizing the animals. Yet the recurrent nature of this well-attested phenomenon, which has been observed in different herds, indicates that interactions with the dead serve a social or biological purpose for elephants.
“Witnessing elephants interact with their dead sends chills up one’s spine, as the behavior so clearly indicates advanced feeling,” said Wittemyer, a member of the conservationist group Save the Elephants who is a wildlife expert at the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University.
“This is one of the many magnificent aspects of elephants that we have observed, but cannot fully comprehend,” he adds.