Do Elephants Mourn?

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 Death is hard. As a human, it is perhaps the hardest thing that we can face, and yet you never really understand it until it happens to you. 

Often, the remarkable thing is that - no matter how long you anticipate it - it happens suddenly. There is sick lurch of loss and yet, at the same time, your mind is left reeling and scattered. It's a strange contradiction to be confronted with death. That person - the person you know - is gone and what is left is some sort of husk that bears no resemblance at all to what they are. Yet, as you try to process grief, the most confusing (and yet most comforting) part is that what that person is hasn't left at all. They still feel real and present and there. It's just that you no longer have the opportunity to interact with them any more, and it is that gut-wrenching homesickness that takes the greatest toil
Lemony Snickett perhaps describes it best:

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

It is clear that death is an incredibly strong and complex emotion so, when we look into whether animals too can feel the same emotions, it is an important place to start.

 The Elephant is perhaps one of the most intelligent and emotive animals that we know of.

It's commonly regarded that elephants can show joy, anger, grief, compassion and love. Bonding into close matriarchal societies, they are knitted together -rather like humans - by how long their children take to grow into adults. They are often compassionate: for example herds have been observed to slow down their entire pace to match the weakest member. There has been an instance where an elephant physically put her life in danger to try to save a Rhino calf that was stuck in the mud, despite her being attacked by the aggressive mother who misread her actions.

An Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King
When it comes to how deaths are handled within elephant herds, there are many observational tales that circulate  - academically and otherwise - to the point where they become almost urban myths. One of the most popular concepts is the idea of a elephant graveyard, where ageing and sick elephants willingly go to die. This myth has since been debunked - instead 'graveyards' were shown to simply be sites where famine or poisoning had caused the death of a group of elephants all at once. However stories of grieving elephants are still passed around.

Mother Elephants have been observed staying with their dead babies and showing signs of distress. One mother tried to lift up the dead body and move it with her feet, staying with it for around an hour in what might be described as a state of sadness or shock. Some elephants have stayed with dead friends for up to three days at a time, refusing to move from them. Old dying elephants have been cared for by the whole herd when they fall, as the herd try to heave them up with their tusks and tenderly provide food and water for the ill animal, before watching it die. In a case such as this, when the rest of the herd moved on, a mother and her calf remained with the body for a whole day. In other examples, elephants have displayed what Charlie Mahew tentatively be called 'burying behaviour', where they toss dirt and leaves over the carcass of a dead elephant. In another anecdote from the 1940s, George Anderson reported that he shot a bull elephant that would repeatedly break into the government gardens of Kenya. The meat of the elephant was carved and given to the tribes-people and afterwards he dragged the carcass half a mile away. To his surprise, that night other elephants found the body, took a shoulder blade and a leg bone, and returned the bones to the exact place where the elephant was killed. Some people believe that elephants can recognise their own herd members' bones and will ritualistically visit them repeatedly, or will at least pick the bones up and even carry them in an effort to recognise them or pay homage to them.
Surely all of these behaviours show us that elephants can mourn?

Well so far, so much conjecture.

Picture by Sarah Skinner
No matter how many stories circulate about these apparent mourning behaviours, comparatively little scientific studies have been conducted to back them up. For example, we don't know whether elephants actually know what death is as an abstract and inevitable consequence of life. Is their grief one that has this understanding, or is it only a recognition of loss? Does it matter? And how true are any of these stories?

Karen MCComb, Lucy Beker and Cynthia Moss attempted to answer this question, creating a study of how several herds of African elephants interacted with the ivory and skulls of their own species, including some of their own matriarchs that had died within 1-5 years, as compared to wood and other dead animal skulls. All exhibits were washed to prevent any scent or human interaction lingering, and all elements were mixed and presented as per usual fair scientific practice. Primarily, they wanted to eitehr confirm or debunk the myth that elephants could recognise their own dead relatives, and that elephants took special interest in elephant bones above all else.
These assumed traits are important in identfying whether elephants recognise death, or even mourn, more than many other animals. Chimpanzees, for example, do have a complex interaction with deceased members of their own species, but seem to completely lose interest when those members decompose. Elephants however, it was suggested, carry this emotional recognition of death even to the skeltal stage. 
By using controlled experiments, they were able to prove that elephants take a special interest in the bones of their own kind which cannot simply be explained by bones being a 'novelty'.

An Elephant Skull
Elephants displayed a marked preference for investigating and interacting with the skulls and ivory of other elephants in preference to skulls from other animals or natural objects. The ivory gained the most preference and was even investigated with marked preference over the skulls. They suggested that 'the interest in ivory may be enhanced because of its connection with living elephants, individuals sometimes touching the ivory of others with their trunks during social behaviour'. This is especially interesting because the ivory was smallest in size and simplest in shape. If the elephants had been drawn to investigating the largest and most complex structures, they would have surely chosen skulls, and if they were drawn to the rarest structure, it would surely have been the Rhinoceros skull.

Importantly, the experience seemed to debunk the myth that elephants selectively recognise and revisit the bones of their relatives. There was no strong preference for investigating the Matriarch's skull over the other elephant skulls present. So, while they may not specifically select the skulls of their own relatives for investigation, the strong interest in ivory and the skulls of their own species mean that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who died within their home range. In this case, I would even say that it would be true of humans. If you're presented with the bones of a stranger or a dead relative, it is an unusual individual who can recognise them out of nowhere after all, yet the presence of a human skeleton is a natural cause of sadness and unease. However, while a human might perform some form of ritual for the body - such as reburying it or leaving a token on it - it is still unknown how far elephant behaviour is simply a sensible evolutionary curiosity or more of a genuinely emotional and respectful response. To further complicate things, this behaviour isn't unique to every elephant: in the end it is a very personal display.

In the end, a lot more study has to be done on this subject. And Elephants aren't alone in potentially mourning, of course.

Throughout the world, many intelligent animals display the behaviours of grief - whether this means a true 'mouning' and recognition of death, or simply a depression following the loss of a close companion. Even some less intelligent animals, such as ducks, have been shown to miss a departed companion so much that they never fully recover. 

To this day I still remember by own experience of viewing animal mourning behaviour.
I was 12, on my first ever holiday abroad to Tenerife where we took a catamaran to go view the dolphins (hopefully!) playing in the sun and sea. While no dolphins showed themselves that day, we experienced something far rarer and more poignant. Emerging from the sea, a whole pod of medium-sized sleeping whales swam around and under our boat. They were all black but for one striking small bleached-white figure: a dead baby being carried on its mother's back. The guide told us that when the calf died it would be carried in this way for some weeks before finally being let go to drift to the bottom of the ocean.

It's very difficult indeed to know what thoughts or emotions pass through these animals when they display such behaviour, but the effect is always haunting. At the very least, it reminds us what it means to be human.

- African Elephants Show High Interest in the Skulls of Their Own Species: From Biology Letters (McComb, Baker, Moss)
- Echo: An Elephant to Remember - Elephant Emotions (PBS)
-Of Mournful Elephants and sorrowful chimpanzees (How Animals Grieve by Barbara J King)
- Animal Grief: How Animals Mourn by David Alderton
-Elephants Really Grieve Like Us (The Daily Mail)
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