Elephants seen mourning dead loved ones long after they’ve gone

7 Feb 2020

Image: © Jiri Foltyn/Stock.adobe.com

Researchers studying how elephants mourn the dead have shown the creatures often care for those they might not have even been close with.

While stories of interactions between elephants and their dead have been around for some time, a new study has revealed much more detailed – and surprising – realisations about how they mourn.

In a paper published to Primates, research led by San Diego Zoo has shown that elephants show a generalised interest in their dead, even after the bodies have long decayed and regardless of whether they were close with the individual.

The most commonly observed behaviour seen was elephants approaching the dead and touching and examining the carcass. They also seemed to use their advanced sense of smell to identify which of its kind had died, with some seen attempting to loudly lift or pull fallen elephants who had just died.

The study included 32 observations of wild elephant carcasses from 12 different locations in Africa.

Elephants are known to form long relationships with each other across social groups that can divide or merge over time. This requires an elephant to remember a wide range of individuals over its life, bolstered by the creature’s notable cognitive abilities, extensive memory and highly sophisticated sense of smell.

‘Sends chills up one’s spine’

When two elephants greet each other, they smell and touch each other for quite some time, suggesting they are updating social and spatial information with each other. It is possible, the researchers said, that an elephant mourning a dead member of its species does the same thing.

“The motivations underlying observed behaviours are hard to know, but clearly varied across circumstances and individuals,” said Shifra Goldenberg, who led the study.

“For example, some elephants made repeated visits to a carcass, and it’s possible that temporal gland streaming by a young female at the site of her mother’s carcass is associated with heightened emotion.”

George Wittemyer, from Colorado State University and Save the Elephants, said that watching how they interact with their dead “sends chills up one’s spine”.

“This is one of the many magnificent aspects of elephants that we have observed, but cannot fully comprehend.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic