Do Elephants Understand Death ?
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.
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.
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