Elephants Mourn Their Dead
Elephants pay homage to the bones of their dead, gently touching the skulls and tusks with their trunks and feet, according to the first systematic study of elephant empathy for the dead.
The finding provides the first hard evidence to support stories of elephant mourning, in which the pachyderms are said to congregate at elephant cemeteries, drawn by the bones of their kin.It also shows that these animals display a trait once thought to be unique to humans, said Karen McComb, an expert on animal communication and cognition at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England."Most mammals show only passing interest in the dead remains of their own or other species," McComb and colleagues wrote in the current issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.Lions are typical in this respect: they briefly sniff or lick a dead of their own species before starting to devour the body. Chimpanzees show more prolonged and complex interactions with dead social partners, but leave them once the carcass starts decomposing.
"In comparison, African elephants are reported not only to exhibit unusual behaviors on encountering the bodies of dead con-specifics, becoming highly agitated and investigating them with the trunk and feet, but also to pay considerable attention to the skulls, ivory and associated bones of elephants that are long dead," said the researchers.
To investigate the unusual behavior, McComb's team studied families of elephants living in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya.In each test, they presented the animals with a choice of three objects. These were placed 25 to 30 meters (82 to 100 feet) away from the nearest elephant, their location (left, center, right) systematically varied. The elephant reaction was then observed and video recorded from a distance.In the first experiment, 19 different family groups were presented with an elephant skull, a piece of ivory and a piece of wood. The animals showed a strong preference for the ivory, and for the skull over the wood.Preference for ivory was very marked, even though it was the smallest object on offer. Elephants placed their feet — which have a sense of feeling — on the ivory and rocked it gently back and forth.
In another experiment, 17 families were presented with skulls from an elephant, a buffalo and a rhinoceros.
"The elephant skull received significantly more attention than the skulls of the other two large herbivores, irrespective of its position in the array," McComb told Animal Planet News.It is unclear how elephants are able to recognize the skulls of their own species with the tusks removed. The behavior cannot be explained by the animals simply choosing the most novel object: the rhinoceros skull was the rarest object on offer, but it did not receive most attention, said McComb."The elephants' strong interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their own home range," the researchers concluded.However, the study could not support stories of elephants specifically visit the bones of close dead relatives.
In a third experiment, the researchers presented three elephant families that in the recent past had lost matriarchs in their female-dominated society, with the choice between the skull of their own matriarch and those of the matriarchs of the other two families.
The elephants did not pick out the skull of their dead matriarch, showing that they may not be able to specifically select the skulls of their own relatives, said the researchers.According to Paul Rees, an expert of elephant behavior at the University of Salford's School of Environment and Life Sciences, U.K., it is difficult to speculate on the elephants' interest in their dead."Some elephants have tusks of quite distinctive shapes so it is perfectly possible that an elephant might recognize another from its tusks alone," Rees told Animal Planet News."Since elephants spend a lot of time associating with their close relatives, it may also be the case that they are more likely to recognize relatives than other elephants with whom they have spend less time."