Elephants in Mourning Spotted on YouTube by Scientists

It was 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokhrel first saw Asian elephants responding to death. An elderly female elephant has died of an infection in an Indian park. A small woman was walking in circles around the corpse. Heaps of fresh dung indicate that other elephants visited recently.

“That’s where we got curious,” he said. Dr. Pokhrel, 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 is rare to see such a moment face to face, as Asian elephants are elusive forest dwellers.

For a paper published Wednesday in the Royal Society’s Open Science Journal, scientists used YouTube to crowdsource videos responding to the deaths of Asian elephants. They received reactions that included touching and standing guard as well as nudging, kicking and shaking. In some cases, females even used their trunks to carry calves or elephant calves, which died.

This work is part of an evolving field called comparative thanatology – the study of how different animals react to death. African elephants are frequently seen visiting and touching carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Dr. “There were stories about it, there were newspaper documents, but there were no scientific documents,” Pokhrel said.

Coming via YouTube, researchers found 24 cases to study. Raman Sukumar, co-author of the Indian Institute of Science, provides videos of an additional case.

The most common reactions include sniffing and touching. For example, many elephants touched the corpse’s face or ears with their trunks. Two young elephants use their legs to move the dead. In three cases, mothers repeatedly kicked their dead or dead calves.

Asian elephants communicate with touch even when alive, Dr. Pokhrel said. They can sleep opposite each other or offer a comforting trunk touch. She said small elephants are often seen walking around wrapped around their trunks.

Another recurring reaction to death was sounding. In the video the elephants trumpet, roar or roar. Mostly, the elephants kept a kind of vigil on the corpse: they lived nearby, sometimes sleeping nearby and sometimes trying to get away from the men trying to investigate. Some even tried to lift or pull their fallen comrades.

Then there was a behavior that was “totally surprising to us,” Drs. Pokhrel said: In five cases, adult females – possibly mothers – carry the carcasses of dead calves.

However, the observation was not entirely new. Researchers have seen monkeys and monkey mothers holding dead 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. Philis Lee, an elephant researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said he had seen the mother of an African elephant carrying her dead calf all day, with the carcass wrapped around her teeth.

To the human eye, these animals can be like grieving parents who are not ready to let their cubs go. While he is cautious in interpreting the actions of animals, Dr. “Carrying is not a common behavior among elephants,” Pokhrel said, as calves usually follow the herd on their own feet.

“Carrying himself indicates he’s aware there’s something wrong with the calf,” she said.

Understanding more about how elephants view death “can give us insights into their most complex cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Pokhrel said. More urgently, she hopes it will help better protect still-living elephants, especially Asian elephants that are in frequent conflict with humans.

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

Dr. Lee described the scenes in the new paper as “wonderful and convincing.”

Dr. Lee said.

Scientists do not yet know the extent to which elephants understand the concept of death, rather than just the absence of a herd member whose trunk is within reach. But that doesn’t make animals so different from us, says Dr. Lee said. “Even for our humans, our primary experience is probably a loss.”

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