Sunday, January 5, 2014

When Giants Fall: Understanding Loss in Elephants

by Lisa Barrett

"The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return." 
–Martin Meredith, elephant researcher.

Elephants investigating a fallen friend.

The Think Elephants International (TEI) research team is passionate about studying elephant behavior and cognition. Not only is it very interesting to learn about the cognitive capacity of the planet’s largest land mammal (and an endangered one at that), but our work also serves to remind us that we are not the only intelligent species on the planet.

In one of our most exciting studies, Dr. Plotnik and his colleagues showed that Asian elephants could recognize their own reflection in a mirror. Such a capacity suggests that, like us, elephants may have a concept of Self. Could this ability extend to a concept of loss or death as told by anecdotes of elephant funerals and mourning rituals? Do elephants experience grief like we do? Anecdotes like the excerpt above, in which an elephant stands by a deceased relative for hours, and even stories of animals grieving the death of a human (like well-known “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony), certainly seem to support this idea.

Do elephants form funeral processions as this photo suggests?

Little empirical evidence exists to refute or uphold theories about animal emotions—and elephant emotions in particular—because it is difficult to say for sure what an animal may be thinking or feeling. However, one study importantly showed that African elephants will investigate the bones of deceased conspecifics (McComb et al. 2006). In fact, these elephants showed higher levels of interest in elephant skulls and ivory than in natural objects or the skulls of other mammals. Furthermore, elephants did not exhibit selective interest in remains of relatives over unrelated individuals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this evidence suggests that there is something about elephant bones in particular that intrigues herd members.

Do elephants feel a special bond with one another that might allow them to develop a feeling of grief when a friend dies? Damini, an elephant in an Indian Zoo, supposedly starved herself to death after the tragic death of a close friend. In the wild, elephants do live in very close-knit, complex social groups which may produce extremely close relationships between herd members. Furthermore, there seems to be an ever-growing list of anecdotes about targeted helping, when an individual recognizes the needs of another and attempts to help the individual, as well as mourning-type behavior in elephants. These stories remind us that elephants may be even more similar to humans than we ever thought.
Unfortunately, emotions are difficult to objectively prove, as science can only measure what we think are signs of emotions. For example, while elephants do technically “weep” (since they do not have tear ducts they must lubricate their eyes by secreting tears, thereby appearing to cry) and make “crying” sounds, we don’t know that they do so as an emotional response. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent significant time with an elephant will tell you that these individuals seem to have complex emotional lives.

Normal elephant tear secretions sometimes make elephants look like they are crying.
Photo by: Lisa Barrett

At TEI, we are continually finding similar social behaviors between humans and elephants in our investigation of convergent evolution (read about our cooperation study here: We may never be able to (accurately) think like an elephant to prove that they experience grief like we do, but TEI’s research on how Asian elephants navigate their world is vital in creating a more accurate representation of the elephant mind. You can learn more about what it means to “Think Elephants” here:


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