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Do elephants mourn their dead?

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Anxiety, suffering, altruism, despair, empathy, solidarity, depression, compassion, sadness… They are human feelings. But only humans? Although many people may believe so, scientists know that it is not. Also some animal species know what feelings of loss and complex emotional pain are. A team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Sciences has analyzed the behavior of elephants in the face of the death of members of their herd. And the results reveal that these gigantic animals are much more “human” than one might imagine.

Yes, elephants also mourn their dead. And they watch over them, and possibly bury them. The latest research into these huge animals has been carried out by a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Sciences, who analyzed amateur-captured videos to learn more about how elephants respond when one of their herd members dies. His article has just been published in the journal ‘Royal Society Open Science’.

Other scientists had previously found evidence that some creatures other than humans, such as apes and dolphins, respond to the death of a member of their groupparticularly mothers losing a calf.

But researchers at the Indian Institute of Science noted little research on how elephants respond when one of their own dies. They faced the difficulty of capturing video evidence of elephants reacting to death due to its rarity.

Scientists cannot simply follow elephants until one of them dies due to time constraints. But the authors of this study surmised that other people would have witnessed such events and that some of them might have recorded the action.

Trying to revive the dead

So they searched social media, more specifically YouTube, and found 24 videos showing elephants reacting to the death of one of their herd members, usually a very young one.

The researchers found that the most common reaction was touching or petting the carcass, usually the face or ears. They also observed cases in which elephants sniffed the corpses. On other occasions members of a group of elephants also performed various types of noise in reaction to a death, and some attempted to reanimate the dead creature.

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The researchers’ conclusion is that elephants not only do they notice when one of their members dies, but they “actively grieve”, particularly mothers when they lose a calf. In fact, in five cases, the mothers carrying their dead calf for several days after their death.

In these reactions, the adult female carrying the dead calf was not usually alone but accompanied or surrounded by other members of the herd. In one of the cases, her mother was violent with a young elephant and did not allow him to approach the corpse of her calf.

There were 19 cases where elephants were observed exploring the corpsesapproaching, investigating and “exhibiting a human-like behavior toward dying and dead individuals,” the study authors note.

There were also frequent attempts to lift or hold dead bodies and what scientists concluded they were attempts to revive the dead and dyingby gently pushing with the fangs and lifting them with the help of the trunk and legs.

guarding the corpses

In one of the videos, an adult female and other pod members rescued and aided a calf that had fallen into a ditch and later died. touch the deceasedincluding several body rubswas the most common thanatological reaction, as it was recorded in 21 cases.

Audible vocalizations –particularly barritos– and non-vocal responses towards dying or dead individuals were evident in nine cases (the remaining 16 cases had no vocal responses or were masked by commentary or music added to the video).

Elephants watched or guarded their dead in most cases, sometimes sleeping near the carcass.. And on one occasion, a blind female, actively searching for a carcass that had been removed.

Most of the elephants remained vigilantes or they stayed close to carcasses, sometimes refusing to leave even during rescue attempts (according to video descriptions, it took between 5 and 28 hours to separate the elephants from the carcass).

In six cases, the elephants directed behaviors similar to the assault (charging, trunk movements, gusts of air or swishing) towards humans to interfere with their attempts to approach the dead or dying animal.

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there was also social responses (behaviors similar to calming down, such as touching each other with the trunk, touching head to head and sniffing, or showing calm reactions), and others, such as “frequent urination and defecation, staying in the same place even after the body is removed lifeless, looking for the carcass, curling up the trunk, touching the lower jaw and holding the trunk between the lips, visits from larger herds, grazing near the carcass, sleeping near a dead mother…”, the study collects.

Similarities with primates and cetaceans

“The thanatological responses of elephants show some remarkable resemblances to certain species of primates and cetaceans that have strong social bonds and large brains with advanced cognitive abilities“, conclude the researchers.

It is not the first study to demonstrate these kinds of qualities in elephants. In 2005, research from the University of Sussex showed that elephants can recognize and interact with the remains of other conspecifics years after death.

Also that they have the ability to remember the place where their family members died and visit it frequently. And even that they might be able to perform something like funeral rituals and of “bury their dead“, covering them with soil and vegetables.

Elephants have an extraordinary ability to memorize and remember. They create very complex interactions within the group and they are much more empathic with each other than humans. They have the largest brain of all land animals, and as many neurons as humans.

They pass the mirror test (they recognize themselves in it), so are self-aware. Are able to use nature’s tools and, like humans, clean food before eating. They have great learning ability they show understanding and compassion towards their conspecifics, and even towards smaller species in size.

Reference Study: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.211740

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