It was 2013 when Sanjieta Pocharelli first witnessed the response of Asian elephants to death. A senior female elephant has died of an infection in an Indian park. A younger woman walked in circles around the carcass. A pile of new debris indicated that other elephants had recently visited.
“That’s where we got interested,” Said Dr. Pocharel, a biologist at the Smithsonian Institution of Conservation Biology. He and Nachiketa Sharma, a wildlife biologist at Kyoto University in Japan, wanted to know more. But it is rare to see such a moment in person, as Asian elephants are the undisputed inhabitants of the forest.
For an article published in the Royal Society Open Science magazine on Wednesday, scientists used YouTube to sell videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and standing in defense, as well as straining, kicking, and shaking. In some cases, females even used their stems to carry dead calves or elephants.
The paper is part of a growing field called Comparative Thanatology – the study of how different animals respond to death. It turned out that African elephants repeatedly visit and touch corpses. But for Asian elephants, Dr. Pocharel said: “There were stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation.”
Through YouTube, researchers found 24 cases to study. Raman Sukumar from the Indian Institute of Science, co-author, provided us with additional case videos.
The most common reactions included smelling and touching. For example, many elephants touched the corpse’s face or ears. Two young elephants used their feet to shake the corpse. In three cases the mothers repeatedly beat the dying or dead calves.
Asian elephants also communicate by touch during their lifetime, said Dr. Pocharel. They may sleep against each other or offer a soothing touch. Junior elephants were often seen walking together with twisted sticks, he said.
Another frequent reaction to death was noise. In the videos the elephants were screaming, whimpering or whimpering. Often, elephants remained somewhat vigilant about the corpse: they stayed close, sometimes sleeping close by, and sometimes trying to chase away people who were trying to investigate. A few tried to pick up or take away their fallen peers.
Then there was one behavior that was “quite surprising to us,” said Dr. Fochareli: in five cases, adult females – presumably mothers – carried the bodies of dead calves.
The observation, however, was not entirely new. Researchers have seen monkeys and monkey mothers holding dead babies in their arms. Dolphins and whales can carry dead calves on their backs or force them to the surface of the water as if to call for breathing. Phil Lee, an elephant researcher at the University of Sterling in Scotland, said he saw an African elephant mother who spent the whole day carrying her dead calf, carcassed on its cubes.
In the human eye, these animals may look like fallen parents who are not ready to release their children. Although he is cautious in interpreting the actions of animals, Dr. Pocharel said that “carrying elephants is a normal behavior” because calves usually follow a herd on its own feet.
“The wearing itself may indicate that they know something is wrong with the calf,” he said.
Understanding more about how elephants view death can “give us an idea of their extremely complex cognitive abilities,” said Dr. Pocharel. More urgently, he hopes this will also help better protect still-living elephants, especially Asian elephants, which are often in conflict with humans.
“We are always talking about habitat loss, we are talking about all this,” he said. “We are not talking about what animals experience psychologically.”
Dr. Lim called the visions referred to in the new paper “wonderful and affirmative.”
“These rare and extremely important natural history observations suggest that there is a sense of loss in elephants,” said Dr. Lim.
Scientists still do not know how much elephants understand the concept of death, rather than simply the absence of a herd member whose trunk was previously inaccessible. But that does not differentiate animals from us, said Dr. Lim. “Even for us humans, our first experience is probably a loss as well.”