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Grief in animals: the case of elephants

Have you ever wondered if humans are the only ones who give importance to the death of our fellow? Some years ago it was believed that this distinguished us from other animals, but is now known that elephants show special behaviors with corpses and death of their congeners.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE AFRICAN ELEPHANT

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest land animal that exists today, with a height of almost 4 meters, weighing up to 6 tons and having one of the highest life expectancies among mammals (it is estimated to be living up to 70 years).
Elephants are organized socially in groups composed of a older female, more experienced, called matriarch, and other related females of various ages with their offspring (males and young females). Sometimes to protect or feed on leafy areas, small herds can be combined to form groups of several hundred individuals. The males join the herd when they find a sexually receptive female, since otherwise are solitary (old males) or form bachelor groups (young males). However, they never go too far from their family and recognize it when they meet again.

Elefantes africanos (Vaughan Leiberum)
African elephants (Vaughan Leiberum)

BEHAVIOR

Although they have not been so studied as primates, elephants are considered intelligent animals and show complex behavior such as altruism, empathy, cooperation and problem solving. The matriarch passes on his knowledge to the rest of the family, as migratory routes, where to find water, food, salt, etc. In this article, however, we will focus on behaviors that have elephants in relation to death, which some studies may qualify for funeral rites. We have the idea that only humans keep vigil our dead and we are aware of death, but it might not be true. Although sometimes we apply our criteria to what we see in other animals and we must discuss these issues with caution, especially elephants, dolphins and apes have been recorded special behaviors related to the death of relatives.

Elephant skeleton (Mike Richardson)
Elephant skeleton (Mike Richardson)

FUNERAL RITES

When we talk about elephants and death, we are not referring to their popularly famous graveyards, which has been proven its inexistence, but other events surrounding the death.
Cyntia Moss is a ethologist who has studied the behavior of a herd of African elephants for over 30 years. His observations allowed to know that elephants show special interest in the bones and remains of other individuals of their species, unlike most animals, that do not specially mark the death of other individuals. According to a study of Sussex University, directed by the Dr. Karen McComb, elephants are the only animals along with humans that can recognize the bones of another individual of the same species althougt it had been dead for years.

Over the body of an elephant, the whole family stops and becomes tense. First approach their trunks to smell it, then move carefully and palpate the bones, especially the skull. Other times, they throw sand and leaves on its remains.

Elefantes ante un cráneo de elefante, rinoceronte y búfalo: sólo se interesaron por el de elefante (Foto: Karen McComb/Royal Society))
Elephants in front of an elephant, rhino and buffalo skull: they only became interested in the elephant one. (Photo: Karen McComb/Royal Society)

When an elephant dies, the whole herd is concerned. If it’s a baby, his mother stays with the body several days and even tries to transport him using the trunk or tusks. The rest of the herd stays at her side or slow down. When an adult dies, the other elephants try to raise it and not separate from it until his remains fall into putrefaction. Sometimes they hold a wake over, driving away the scavengers, and even half burying the body in litter. They are also able to systematically recheck the bones and tusks that are on the road and even –the researchers suggest-, they visit the bones of their relatives. The premature death of the matriarch of the family cause general consternation and can lead to the disintegration of the group. Some females may take up to 20 years to return to rebuild the family unit, others will never achieve it.

These behaviors and social structure are used by hunters and ivory traffickers because killing one adult specimen, especially the matriarch, leads to an almost certain death to the group. But that is another issue to be discussed in future posts.

REFERENCES

Cover photo by John Chaney (National Geographic 2012 Traveler Photo contest 2012)

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