Asian elephants respond to dead and dying mates

Garima Singhal

Are humans the only species who respond to the death of loved ones with grieving and distress? Evidence suggests otherwise, and now researchers from the Indian Insitute of Science, Bengaluru, have observed Asian elephants in the wild displaying a variety of behavioural reactions upon encountering the death of other elephants. 

An elephant matriarch with an old female
An elephant matriarch with an old female  (Photo: Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel)

We often imagine grief in response to a loved one’s death to be a uniquely human trait. Now, a team of researchers led by Raman Sukumar from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru have shown that Asian elephants show distress in response to the death of other elephants, indicating an advanced awareness of death.

The scientific study of how different animals respond behaviorally, physiologically, and psychologically to the death of their companions is known as comparative thanatology. Thanatological behaviours have been reported in non-human primates, marine mammals like whales and dolphins, and even birds. Several species of whales and dolphins have long been known to care for or attend to dead or dying individuals, while primate mothers have been observed to carry around their dead offspring long after death.

Depending on the species, animals exhibit different behaviours upon experiencing the death of other members of their species, but most signal alarm or grief in one form or another. Behavioural ecologists have suggested that animals with large brains and highly developed cognitive abilities show similar responses to the dead.

Previous studies have indicated that African elephants display an awareness of the death of other members of their group and show compassionate behaviour towards those in distress. In both African savannah and forest elephants, there are reports of individuals responding to sick, dying, or dead elephants by staying near or guarding them, and even displaying empathetic behaviours. They have even been observed to revisit the carcass and cover it with dirt, leaves or branches. 

My colleagues and I have been studying elephants for over decades now and you start making a number of behavioural observations in the course of doing other work,” says Sukumar. Many years ago, Sukumar observed an elephant standing guard over a dead calf. This, coupled with other anecdotal information and literature on African elephants, inspired him to study responses to death in Asian elephants. 

A struggling calf supported by the mother
A struggling calf supported by its mother (Photo: Nachiketha Sharma).

The study began when Sukumar and his colleagues, Nachiketha Sharma and Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, made several chance observations of Asian elephant behaviour in Bandipur National Park and the adjoining areas of Mudumalai National Park of the Nilgiri-Mysore – Wayanad Elephant reserve in southern India.

The researchers observed elephants approaching and exploring their dying companions before, during, as well as after death. They appeared to coordinate their actions to help the dying animals — for example, by gripping a dying calf from both front and rear to keep it from falling. The elephants guarded the body of an already dead adult female and stayed close by as forest officials conducted inspection and autopsy.

The team also recorded loud trumpets by an adult female in the presence of a dying calf. Such vocalizations and trumpets by adult females in the presence of a dying calf could be signals of distress, as Asian elephants are known to use vocal signals such as chirps, trumpets, roars, and rumbles when distressed. 

James R. Anderson, professor of psychology at the Kyoto university calls the paper timely. For anyone interested in the extent to which other species might share the same psychological and emotional reactions to the death of a conspecific [a member of the same species], this paper is especially interesting,” he says, adding that this is the first scientific report on death-related behaviour in Asian elephants.

Anderson compares and contrasts these observations with the ritualistic behaviour post-death that can be seen in some social insects. These typically dispose of the bodies of other dead insects, possibly to prevent disease from spreading in the nest. According to Anderson, the most conclusive and impressive result to come out of the study is the show of empathy and concern in Asian elephants with respect to a dying newborn and their interest in corpses. It is valuable to see their reactions in the rarely witnessed context of death,” he says.

The researchers mention in the discussion of their paper that it would be interesting to collect physiological data on surviving individuals, to get a clearer picture of the likely emotional correlates of behaviours surrounding death. 

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