It was in 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokharel first saw Asian elephants responding to death. An older elephant in an Indian park had died of an infection. A young woman circled around the carcass. Piles of fresh droppings hinted that other elephants had recently come.
“That’s where we got curious,” said Dr Pokharel, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She and Nachiketha Sharma, a wildlife biologist at Kyoto University in Japan, wanted to know more. But it’s rare to glimpse such a moment in person, as Asian elephants are elusive denizens of the forest.
For a paper published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, scientists used YouTube to collect videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and guarding, as well as elbowing, kicking and shaking. In a few cases, the females had even used their trunks to transport dead calves or baby elephants.
The work is part 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 the carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Dr Pokharel said: “There were stories about it, there were papers in the papers, but there was no scientific documentation.”
Scouring YouTube, the researchers found 24 cases to investigate. Raman Sukumar from the Indian Institute of Science, a co-author, provided videos of an additional case.
The most common reactions included sniffing and touching. For example, many elephants have touched the face or ears of a carcass with their trunks. Two young elephants used their paws to shake a deceased. In three cases, the mothers repeatedly kicked their dying or dead calves.
Asian elephants also communicate through touch while living, Dr Pokharel said. They can sleep close together or offer reassuring trunk touches. Young elephants are often seen walking with their trunks rolled together, she said.
Another common reaction to death was to make noise. The elephants in the videos trumpeted, roared or growled. Often elephants would keep a kind of vigil over a carcass: they would stay close, sometimes sleeping nearby and sometimes trying to chase away humans who tried to investigate. Several tried to lift or pull their fallen comrades.
Then there was behavior that “was quite surprising to us”, said Dr Pokharel: In five cases, adult females – presumably mothers – carried the bodies of calves that had died.
The sighting, however, was not entirely new. Researchers have seen monkeys and mother monkeys holding deceased infants. Dolphins and whales can carry dead calves on their backs or push them to the surface of the water, as if pushing them to breathe. Phyllis Lee, an elephant researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said she saw a mother African elephant carrying her dead calf for an entire day, the carcass draped over its tusks.
To humans, these animals may look like bereaved parents who are not ready to let go of their young. Although she is cautious about interpreting animal actions, Dr Pokharel said “carrying is not usual behavior” among elephants, as calves usually follow the herd with their own feet.
“This wearing can indicate that they are aware that there is something wrong with the calf,” she said.
Better understanding how elephants perceive death could “give us insight into their very complex cognitive abilities”, Dr Pokharel said. More urgently, she hopes it will also help to better protect the elephants that are still alive, especially the Asian elephants which are frequently in conflict with humans.
“We always talk about habitat loss, we talk about all these things,” she said. “We don’t talk about what the animals go through psychologically.”
Dr Lee called the observations referenced in the new paper “wonderful and confirmatory”.
“These rare and extremely important natural history observations suggest that an awareness of loss is present in elephants,” Dr Lee said.
Scientists don’t yet know to what extent elephants apprehend the concept of death, rather than the mere absence of a herd member whose trunk was close at hand. But that doesn’t make animals so different from us, Dr Lee said. “Even for us humans, our first experience is probably also loss.”