Scientists are now scouring YouTube videos to crowdsource the interactions of Asian elephants and their response to death. Elephants are emotionally intelligent animals known to display grief at the loss of herd mates, and scientists have previously documented wild African elephants taking interest in the bones of their deceased.
However, not much is known about these occurrences as it is often difficult for scientists to constantly monitor wild animals for this behavior. For the Asian elephant, this is even more difficult as they are elusive forest dwellers – while there have been stories about their displayed grief over deaths, there has not been any actual scientific documentation.
Researchers looked up keywords associated with grieving elephants, such as “elephant death” and “elephant responding to death”, on YouTube. They then narrowed down the videos to 24 that displayed mourning-like behavior. These videos were translated when necessary and slowed down to observe the mourning display. Their results were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Sniffing and touching deceased elephants was the most common behavior trait, highlighting tactile communication in elephant societies. Another behavior trait was noise – the elephants would also make noises in response to the deceased elephant, and groups would sometimes gather around the carcass and make roaring or trumpeting noises.
In three cases, the mother of a dead dying calf was seen kicking said calf. This type of reaction also occurs in non-death contexts: For example, after giving birth, one adult female kicked and twisted the truck in an attempt to revive a newborn.
Several videos showed evidence of traits that were only ever told anecdotally before, like female adults carrying around dead calves. This reaction may indicate that the elephants were aware that the dead could no longer fend for themselves.
“That carrying itself can indicate they are aware that there’s something wrong with the calf,” Dr Sanjeeta Pokharel, the first author of the paper and a biologist as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told the New York Times.
This research highlights the importance of open-source video data for observing the natural world around us – especially as there is debate as to whether only humans have an understanding of death, or if other animals also have a degree of death awareness.