Scientists are currently analyzing YouTube recordings for information on Asian elephant interactions and their reactions to death. Elephants are emotionally aware animals who have been observed showing mourning after the death of herd mates, and scientists have previously observed wild African elephants examining the bones of their deceased.
However, because it is impossible for scientists to regularly watch wild animals for this behavior, little is known about these events. This is much more challenging for the Asian elephant because they are elusive forest residents – while there have been anecdotes of them displaying grief over fatalities, there has been no scientific documentation.
Researchers used YouTube to search for phrases related to grieving elephants, such as “elephant death” and “elephant responding to death.” The videos were then reduced down to 24 that showed mourning-like behavior. These movies were slowed down and translated as needed to see the mourning show. Their findings were published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.
The most common behavioural attribute was sniffing and stroking deceased elephants, demonstrating tactile communication in elephant populations. The elephants would also make noises in response to the deceased elephant, and groups of elephants would sometimes cluster around the carcass and make roaring or trumpeting noises.
The mother of a dead dying calf was witnessed kicking said calf in three situations. This type of reaction can also occur in non-death situations: for example, one adult female kicked and twisted the truck after giving birth in an attempt to revive a newborn.
Several recordings revealed proof of features that had previously only been reported anecdotally, such as female adults carrying deceased calves. This behavior could imply that the elephants realized the dead couldn’t fight for themselves any longer.
The primary author of the article, Dr Sanjeeta Pokharel, a scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told the New York Times, “That carrying itself can imply they are aware that there is something wrong with the calf.”
This study emphasizes the relevance of open-source video footage for studying the natural world around us, especially given the ongoing dispute over whether only humans have a sense of death or if other animals do as well.