When a member of their herd dies, elephants often guard the bodies. They become agitated and appear to investigate the dead animal, even touching the bones– the skull and tusks — with their trunks and feet in a ceremonial way (as caught on this video).
A few years ago, scientists from the UK and Kenya observed elephants engaged in such behaviors. They were unable to confirm that the elephants visit the bones of their dead relatives in particular. But, as scientists wrote in the journal Biology Letters, “their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range.”
As David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the UK, says in New Scientist:
Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals. The fact they are able to distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising.
Elephants themselves are a matriarchal society filled with aunties and family members who have close bonds within a group.
Therefore, a death in the family “could have an impact on social bonding and structure within the group,” just as it does in human families.
Scientists emphasized that the “notion of elephant graveyards – where old elephants wander off to die – has been exposed as myth by previous studies” and that they are not exactly be “mourning” their dead. But elephants do get excited when they near carcasses as “secretions [stream] from their temples.”
Photo by Xavi Talleda
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