Asian elephants, like their African cousins, seem to mourn their dead, sometimes carrying their lost babies on their trunks for days or weeks, according to new research.
It is unknown whether elephants understand death in the same way as humans. However, Asian elephants are known to be social creatures. The new study provides evidence that they have an emotional response when one of their own dies.
"If we understand the responses of elephants to death, we will understand why they need to be protected," said study authors Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel of the Smithsonian National Institute of Zoo and Conservation Biology and Nachiketha Sharma of the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Studies.
“We found that when people see an elephant react to a dead relative, they feel a sense of kinship, compassion and empathy for the species.
African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) display emotional behavior when many members of the herd die. They can approach the corpse, touch it with their torso, kick the corpse, or keep watch near it. Asian elephants, on the other hand, are less well known. Because they prefer woodland habitats, they are more difficult to observe in the wild than African elephants living in the savannah.
"They could be 100 feet [30 meters] away and you might not be able to see them because the forest is so dense," said Brian Aucone, senior vice president of life sciences at the Denver Zoo.
To get around this, Pokharel, Sharma and their co-author Raman Sukumar, then a student at the Indian Institute of Science, conducted a study on YouTube, where surprising animal videos are common.
They searched the site for keywords about Asian elephants and their demise. They found 2010 videos of 2021 cases where one or more Asian elephants were seen reacting to the death of a shepherd friend between 24 and 39. Eighty percent of the videos featured wild elephants, and sixteen percent featured captive elephants.
When a baby elephant dies, some of the most striking behavior has been observed in the videos. An adult female—probably the mother—was seen carrying a baby elephant that died in five of the 12 videos. It turned out that this transport behavior continued for days or weeks, depending on the decomposition status of the corpse.
Parveen Kaswan, an Indian Ranger, shared one such video on Twitter in 2019, showing an Asian elephant dragging the body of a calf across a road in what he described as a “funeral procession.”
“I think they're trying to grasp what's going on, and there's something going on in their interactions with their kids, just like it does with us,” Aucone said.
Other common elephant reactions seen in videos include agitation or alertness when near the corpse; exploratory movements, such as approaching or probing the body; They have tactile and olfactory responses.
According to Aucone, elephants communicate through scent, so sniffing is not surprising. In ten cases, elephants attempted to lift, poke, or shake the corpse to resurrect their fallen comrades. It turned out that in 22 cases, they kept watch over the body.
“Some of this has happened before,” Aucone said. According to Aucone, when the zoo euthanizes elderly elephants due to illness or disability, staff allow herders to say their final goodbyes. As a social behavior, survivors often sniff the deceased elephant or place their trunks in their mouths.
Elephants aren't the only social animals to react to death, especially the death of a baby. Dolphins and killer whales have been observed pushing their mothers' dead cubs. Tahlequah, an orca female off the coast of Washington, held her missing baby for 2018 days in 17. Other female killer whales were seen huddled in a circle around Tahlequah and her dead newborn baby, hours after the baby's death.