Asian elephants carry their lost infants in their trunks for days or weeks, like their African cousins, according to new research.
It is not known whether elephants understand death in the same way humans do. New research shows that Asian elephants experience some sort of emotional response when they lose one of their own.
Understanding elephants' response to death might have some far reaching effects on their survival. It is possible that anything which instantly connects people will pave the way for co-existence in elephant countries.
African bush elephants have long been observed reacting emotionally when a herd member dies. They could approach the body and touch it with their trunks, or they could stand nearby as if on guard. Asian elephants are less well-known. They are more difficult to observe in the wild than African elephants because they live in forested areas.
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Brian Aucone, the senior vice president for life sciences at the Denver Zoo, was not involved in the new study.
To get around this, Pokharel, Sharma, and their co-author had to go to the internet to watch animal videos. They found 39 videos of Asian elephants reacting to the loss of a herdmate, after searching the site for certain words related to the topic. Wild elephants, captive elephants and semi-captive elephants were shown in 80% of the videos.
When a calf died, some of the most striking behaviors were seen. A female adult is seen carrying a dead calf in five of the 12 videos. The carrying behavior went on for days or weeks based on the state of the corpse.
The Indian Forest Service Ranger Parveen Kaswan uploaded a video of an Asian elephant dragging the body of a calf across a road in a funeral procession.
Aucone said that there was something happening with their interaction with their offspring, just like it would be with us.
Other common elephant reactions seen in the videos included restless or alert when near the corpse, exploratory movements such as approaching or investigating the body, or touching and smelling. Aucone said the sniffing is not surprising because elephants communicate through scent. In 10 cases, the elephants tried to revive their lost friend by nudging or shaking it. In 22 cases, they stood by the body.
Aucone told Live Science that they have seen some of this before. The staff give the herdmates a chance to say goodbye when the elephants are euthanized due to illness or infirmity. The survivors lay their trunks by the elephant's mouth.
Elephants are not the only social creatures that react to the death of babies. Orca mothers push their dead calves around. An orca female named Tahlequah off the coast of Washington held on to her baby for 17 days. In the hours after the baby died, other female orcas were seen huddled around the dead baby and her mother in what looked like a circle of grief. The mothers of apes and monkeys carry dead infants for weeks or months.
In the case of the elephants, which are devoted to caring for their young, the mother-calf bond is fundamental, according to the study. Pokharel and Sharma told Live Science that this is true of primate as well.
The long lasting bond between mothers and calves in both elephants and primates has some striking similarities as both nurture their young until they become strong enough to defend themselves. It's difficult to predict the function behind dead infants carrying. Some of the videos on YouTube show evidence that some species have a sense of death awareness.
It was originally published on Live Science.