It was 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokharel first witnessed Asian elephants responding to death. An older female elephant in an Indian park has died of an infection. A young woman was walking in circles around the carcass. Fresh dung piles hinted that other elephants had recently visited.
“That is where we got curious,” said Dr. Pokharel, a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She and Nachiketha Sharma, a wildlife biologist at Kyoto University in Japan, wanted to learn more. But it is rare to find such a moment in person, as Asian elephants are elusive forest dwellers.
For a paper published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, scientists used YouTube to crowdsource videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and standing guard as well as nudging, kicking and shaking. In a few cases, females had even used their trunks to carry calves, or baby elephants, that had died.
This work is part of a growing field called Comparative Thanatology – the study of how different animals react to death. African elephants have been found to repeatedly visit and touch carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Dr. Pokharel said, “There were stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation.”
Combining through YouTube, the researchers found 24 cases for study. An additional case of Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, co-author, provided videos.
The most common reactions include sniffing and touching. For example, many elephants touched the face or ears with a carcass with their trunks. Two young elephants used their legs to shake a deceased one. In these three cases, mothers repeatedly kicked their dying or dead calves.
Asian elephants communicate with touch while living, too, Dr. Pokharel said. They may sleep against one another or offer reassuring trunk touches. Younger elephants are often seen walking with their trunks wrapped together, she said.
Another frequent response to death was making noise. Elephants in the videos trumpeted, roared or rumbled. Often, elephants kept a kind of vigil over a carcass: they stayed close, sleeping occasionally and sometimes trying to chase away humans who tried to investigate. Several tried to lift or pull their fallen peers.
Then there was a behavior that “was quite surprising for us,” Dr. Pokharel said: In five cases, adult females – presumably mothers – carried calves of the bodies that had died.
The observation was not completely new, though. Researchers have seen ape and monkey mothers holding deceased infants. Dolphins and whales may carry dead backs on their backs or push them up to the surface of the water, as if urging them to breathe. Phyllis Lee, an elephant researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said she had seen an African elephant mother carry her dead calf for a full day, the carcass draped across her tusks.
To human eyes, these animals can be resemble bereaved parents not ready to let their young. While she is cautious about interpreting the animals’ actions, Dr. Pokharel said that “carrying is not a normal behavior” in elephants, as calves usually follow the herd around on their own feet.
“That carrying itself can transport them. They are aware that there is something wrong with the calf,” she said.
Understanding more about how elephants view death could “give us insight about their highly complex cognitive abilities,” Dr. Pokharel said. More urgently, she hopes it will also help to better protect elephants that are still alive, especially Asian elephants that are in frequent conflict with humans.
“We always talk about habitat loss, we talk about all these things,” she said. “We are not talking about what animals are going through psychologically.”
Dr. Lee called the sightings referenced in the new paper “wonderful and confirmatory.”
“These rare and extremely important natural history observations suggest that the loss of awareness is present in elephants,” Dr. Lee said.
Scientists do not yet know to what degree elephants grasp the concept of death, but rather the absence of a herd whose trunk is used to reach within. But that doesn’t make the animals so different from ourselves, Dr. Lee said. “Even for us humans, our primary experience is probably also loss.”