Mourning elephants seen on YouTube by scientists

It was in 2013 that Sanjeeta Pokharel first witnessed Asian elephants responding to death. An elderly female elephant in an Indian park had died from an infection. A younger female walked in circles around the corpse. Piles of fresh dung hinted that other elephants had recently visited.

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

For a paper published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, scientists used YouTube to collect videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and guarding, as well as pushing, kicking and shaking. In a few cases, the females had even used their trunks to carry calves, or baby elephants, that had died.

The work is part of a growing field called comparative thanatology: the study of how different animals react to death. African elephants have been found to repeatedly visit and touch carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Dr Pokharel said: “There were stories about it, there was documentation in the newspapers, but there was no scientific documentation.”

Combing through YouTube, the researchers found 24 cases for the study. Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Sciences, a co-author, provided videos of an additional case.

The most common reactions included sniffing and touching. For example, many elephants touched the face or ears of a carcass with their trunk. Two young elephants used their legs to shake a deceased. In three cases, the mothers repeatedly kicked their dying or dead calves.

Asian elephants also communicate by touch while they are living, said Dr. Pokharel. They can sleep against each other or offer soothing touches on the trunk. Younger elephants are often seen walking with their trunks together, he said.

Another frequent response to death was to make noise. The elephants in the videos trumpeted, roared, or rumbled. Elephants would often keep a sort of vigil over a carcass: they would stay close, occasionally sleep nearby, and sometimes try to chase off humans who were trying to investigate. Several tried to lift or pull their fallen comrades.

Then there was behavior that “was quite surprising to us,” Dr. Pokharel said: In five cases, adult females, presumably mothers, carried the bodies of pups that had died.

However, the observation was not entirely new. Researchers have seen ape and monkey mothers holding deceased babies. Dolphins and whales can carry dead calves on their backs or push them to the surface of the water, as if urging them to breathe. Phyllis Lee, an elephant researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said she has seen a mother African elephant carry her dead calf for a full day, with the carcass wrapped in her tusks.

To human eyes, these animals can resemble bereaved parents who are not ready to let go of their young. While she is cautious about interpreting the animals’ actions, Dr Pokharel said “charging is not a normal behavior” for elephants, as calves often follow the herd on their own two feet.

“That demeanor in itself may indicate that they are aware that something is wrong with the calf,” he said.

Understanding more about how elephants view death could “give us insight into their highly complex cognitive abilities,” said Dr Pokharel. More urgently, he hopes he will also help better protect elephants that are still alive, especially Asian elephants that are in frequent conflict with humans.

“We always talk about habitat loss, we talk about all these things,” he said. “We’re not talking about what the animals are going through psychologically.”

Dr. Lee called the sightings referenced in the new article “wonderful and confirmatory.”

“These rare and extremely important natural history observations suggest that elephants are aware of loss,” said Dr. Lee.

Scientists don’t yet know the extent to which elephants grasp the concept of death, rather than just the absence of a herd member whose trunk used to be within arm’s reach. But that doesn’t make the animals so different from us, Dr. Lee said. “Even for us humans, our main experience is probably also loss.”

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