Elephants are known for their intelligence and complex social behavior, and recent research has shed light on how they respond to death.
In a new review paper, scientists examined over 30 reports of elephant reactions to death, including the case of Victoria, a 55-year-old matriarch who died of natural causes in Kenya’s Ewaso Ng’iro River.
Researchers observed that several elephants, including Victoria’s 14-year-old son Malasso and 10-year-old daughter Noor, lingered around her body after death. Some elephants touched Victoria’s body with their trunks, while others tried to lift her stiffened ears with their feet.
The researchers do not conclude that elephants mourn, but they do acknowledge that the loss of an elephant is acknowledged and investigated by other elephants, even those unrelated to the deceased. The response of elephants to death suggests that it may hold emotional significance for them.
One obstacle to understanding elephants’ experience is that their world is inhabited by an array of smells that humans cannot perceive.
Elephants have more genes dedicated to their olfactory system than any other animal on record, and they can differentiate between local human ethnic groups using a combination of smell and sight.
This heightened sense of smell may explain why elephants spend time sniffing around the bodies of their deceased kin.
Elephants are different from other animals in that their bodies take a long time to decompose due to their size. This means that elephant tusks, which are important focal points for elephants, can remain in the same place for years.
Elephants are known to touch each other’s tusks frequently, and they show disproportionate interest in tusks relative to other bones.
While the response of elephants to death is not fully understood, it is clear that they recognize and investigate the loss of an elephant. Loss is a phenomenon common to sentient animals, including humans, and the response of elephants to death suggests that it may hold emotional significance for them.