Although many members of the animal kingdom take an interest in their dead, a few notably intelligent creatures are known for their complex and lengthy interactions with deceased members of their clan. They are primates, whales and dolphins, and elephants. The latter have been observed “mourning” their dead many times, but until now, a comprehensive look at the literature on this topic was lacking.
A new review published in the journal Primates has assessed previous observations of elephants interacting with their dead to tell us more about the nature of their behavior. Interestingly, the authors note that elephants interact with their dead regardless of the strength of the bond between the living elephant and the deceased individual. This, they write, suggests that elephants have a “generalized interest in their dead.”
The literature review focused on 32 observations from 12 different sources. Eleven of the studies focused on African savanna elephants, while one looked at the rarer African forest elephant. The researchers also conducted their own original observations, studying elephants that visited a dead matriarch known as Victoria in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve in 2013.
"The most commonly recorded behavior of elephants towards their dead included touching, approaching the dead animal and investigating the carcass," said Dr Shifra Goldenberg, from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in a statement. Elephants were observed interacting with carcasses at all stages of decay, from freshly dead animals to “scattered and sun-bleached bones.”
"The motivations underlying observed behaviors are hard to know, but clearly varied across circumstances and individuals,” Goldenberg added. “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." An elephant’s temporal glands are modified sweat glands between its eyes and ears that produce an oily secretion.
The researchers also note that the animals used their strong sense of smell to identify the dead, and even attempted to lift or pull elephants that had just died. They were also witnessed producing vocalizations at the site of the dead elephant.
Elephants are remarkably clever beasts. They use tools, show empathy, have highly impressive memories, and are socially complex. They live in matriarchal groups that divide and merge over the years in what is known as a fission-fusion society. They form strong bonds and are able to recognize many other elephants, including, it would seem, those that have died. Future research will tell us more about the funerary behaviors of these awe-inspiring animals and reveal new insights into their unique brains.
"Witnessing elephants interact with their dead sends chills up one's spine, as the behavior so clearly indicates advanced feeling," said Dr George Wittemyer, from Save the Elephants and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University. "This is one of the many magnificent aspects of elephants that we have observed, but cannot fully comprehend."