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Elephants in Mourning Spotted on YouTube by Scientists


It was 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokharel first witnessed Asian elephants responding to death. An older female elephant in an Indian park had died of an infection. A younger female was walking in circles across the carcass. Fresh dung piles hinted that other elephants had recently visited.

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

For a paper published Wednesday within the journal Royal Society Open Science, the scientists used YouTube to crowdsource videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and standing guard in addition to nudging, kicking and shaking. In a number of cases, females had even used their trunks to hold calves, or baby elephants, that had died.

The work is a component 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 have been stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation.”

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

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

Asian elephants communicate with touch while living, too, Dr. Pokharel said. They might sleep against each other or offer reassuring trunk touches. Younger elephants are sometimes seen walking with their trunks wrapped together, she said.

One other frequent response to death was making noise. Elephants within the videos trumpeted, roared or rumbled. Often, elephants kept a sort of vigil over a carcass: They stayed close, occasionally sleeping nearby and sometimes attempting to thrust back humans who tried to research. Several tried to lift or pull their fallen peers.

Then there was one behavior that “was quite surprising for us,” Dr. Pokharel said: In five cases, adult females — presumably moms — carried the bodies of calves that had died.

The commentary was not totally recent, though. Researchers have seen ape and monkey moms holding deceased infants. Dolphins and whales may carry dead calves on their backs or push them as much as the surface of the water, as if urging them to breathe. Phyllis Lee, an elephant researcher on the University of Stirling in Scotland, said that she has seen an African elephant mother carry her dead calf for a full day, the carcass draped across her tusks.

To human eyes, these animals can resemble bereaved parents not able to let go of their young. While she is cautious about interpreting the animals’ actions, Dr. Pokharel said that “carrying shouldn’t be a usual behavior” in elephants, as calves normally follow the herd around on their very own feet.

“That carrying itself can indicate they’re aware that there’s something unsuitable with the calf,” she said.

Understanding more about how elephants view death could “give us insight about their highly complex cognitive abilities,” Dr. Pokharel said. More urgently, she hopes that it is going to also help to raised protect elephants which might be still alive, especially Asian elephants which might be in frequent conflict with humans.

“We at all times speak about habitat loss, we speak about all these items,” she said. “We usually are not talking about what animals are going through psychologically.”

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

“These rare and intensely necessary natural history observations suggest that an awareness of loss is present in elephants,” Dr. Lee said.

Scientists don’t yet know to what degree elephants grasp the concept of death, quite than simply the absence of a herd member whose trunk was nearby. But that doesn’t make the animals so different from ourselves, Dr. Lee said. “Even for us humans, our primary experience might be also loss.”

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