Elephants in mourning spotted on YouTube by scientists

It was 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokharel first witnessed Asian elephants responding to death. An older female elephant in an Indian park had died of an infection. A younger female was circling the carcass. Dung piles hinted that other elephants had recently visited.

Elizabeth PrestonThe New York Times
Published : 24 May 2022, 10:35 AM
Updated : 24 May 2022, 10:35 AM

“That is where we got curious,” said Pokharel, a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She and Nachiketha Sharma, a wildlife biologist at Kyoto University in Japan, wanted to learn more. But it is rare to glimpse such a moment in person, as Asian elephants are elusive forest dwellers.

For a paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the scientists used YouTube to crowdsource videos of Asian elephants responding to death. Reactions included touching and standing guard as well as nudging, kicking and shaking. In a few cases, females used their trunks to carry calves that had died.

African elephants have been found to visit and touch carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Pokharel said, “There were stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation.”

Combing through YouTube, the researchers found 24 cases for study. Co-author Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science provided videos of another case.

The most common reactions included sniffing and touching.

Another frequent response to death was making noise. Elephants in the videos trumpeted, roared or rumbled. Often, elephants kept a kind of vigil over a carcass: They stayed close. Several tried to lift or pull their fallen peers.

There was one behavior that “was quite surprising for us,” Pokharel said: In five cases, adult females — presumably mothers — carried the bodies of calves that had died.

The observation was not totally new. Researchers have seen ape and monkey mothers holding deceased infants. Dolphins and whales may carry dead calves on their backs or push them up to the surface, as if urging them to breathe. Phyllis Lee, an elephant researcher, said she has seen an African elephant carry her dead calf with her tusks for a day.

Pokharel hopes understanding how elephants view death will help to better protect elephants, especially Asian elephants in frequent conflict with humans.

Scientists do not yet know to what degree elephants grasp the concept of death. But that does not make the animals so different from ourselves, Lee said. “Even for us humans, our primary experience is probably also loss."

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