Do Elephants Understand Death ?

Shimon Shuchat
Sep 11, 2017 · 3 min read
Image for post
Image for post
An adult and two juvenile African forest elephants inspect the carcass of an elephant killed by poachers and who’s tusks were removed.

On October, 11, 2003 a female elephant named Maya approaches the stiff, dead, body of her former matriarch and mother, Eleanor, in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Eleanor had collapsed after a serious accident one day earlier and died despite the efforts of her groupmates to bring her back to her feet. Maya, who had been one of Eleanor’s close companions, touches the carcass with her trunk, hovers her right foot over the body, and then stands over it while rocking back and forth. Over the next five days, multiple elephants from Eleanor’s family group, as well as neighboring ones, are seen visiting the body and exhibiting similar behavior¹. Their actions are eerily reminiscent of the rituals humans observe to mourn their dead.

A fascination with and understanding of death has long been thought to be a uniquely human attribute, but elephants have started to challenge this notion. Many field researchers have noted the surprising behaviors elephants exhibit with relation to their dead, from holding and sniffing the bleached bones of dead herd mates² to mothers covering the heads of their dead calves with vegetation³. However, it was only until 2006 that these behaviors were studied using controlled experiments.

In 2006 field researchers tried to determine if elephants exhibited more interest in the skulls of elephants as opposed to other natural objects or the bones of other animal species. Multiple family groups living in Amboseli National Park were presented with a selection comprised of wood, an elephant skull, ivory, and/or the skull of a different species of animal. The elephants were found to exhibit significantly more interest in the ivory and elephant skulls than they did in the wood and the other skulls². Interestingly, the elephants were much more attracted to the ivory than the elephant skulls. The researchers suggest that this is likely due to the fact that elephants touch each other’s tusks during social interactions. Ivory, therefore, is strongly associated with living elephants. This may be similar to the way in which humans are especially interested in the faces of dead bodies since facial expressions are one of our main methods of social communication.

When elephant groups were presented with the skulls of their own matriarchs alongside those of strange matriarchs they did not show a significant preference for their own². However, the researchers did acknowledge that since the sample size was very small the results are not necessarily conclusive.

While we will likely never know with certainty what is going through the minds of these elephants as they caress the carcasses and skulls of their dead conspecifics, it is safe to say that the observations of and experiments on these behaviors reveal that their emotional lives are much more complex than was previously thought.

Oria and her son, Oria 3, are unrelated to the dead calf’s family but are clearly very agitated and respond intensively. Both Oria and Oria 4 try to raise the body up with their trunks and Oria 4 gives three loud roars. In the second sequence another female, also unrelated, tries to get the unresponsive body onto its feet using her trunk and tusks. Over several days, hundreds of elephants diverted their movement through the clearing in order to visit the dead calf. Responses were highly individualistic, ranging from a short pause, through gentle touching and smelling, to more agitated and even violent efforts to raise the body.

References:

¹Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, Shivani Bhalla, George Wittemyer, and Fritz Vollrath. “Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 100, no. 1 (2006): 87–102. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159106001018

²McComb, Karen, Lucy Baker, and Cynthia Moss. “African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species.” Biology Letters 2, no. 1 (2006): 26–28. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/1/26.short

³Moss, Cynthia J. Elephant memories: thirteen years in the life of an elephant family. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Find out more about the Elephant Listening Project
To conserve the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants

ELP Rumbles

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store