Advertisement

Behavioural responses of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) towards dying and dead conspecifics

Abstract

Reactions to dying and dead conspecifics have been observed in many non-human animals. Elephants, particularly African elephants, are thought to have an awareness of the death of their conspecifics, as they show compassionate behaviour towards others in distress. However, there is a paucity of scientific documentation on thanatological responses displayed by Asian elephants. Here, we report three detailed, directly observed cases of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) responding to dying and dead conspecifics. Behavioural responses were recorded opportunistically and described as pre-, peri- and post-mortem phases based on the status of the individual before, near or after its death. In all three observations, elephants showed approach and exploratory (sniffing and inspecting) behaviours, and epimeletic or helping (physically supporting dying calves) in pre- and peri-mortem phases. We also recorded high-frequency vocalizations (trumpets) by an adult female in the presence of a dying calf. Our observations indicate that, like their African counterparts, Asian elephants might experience distress in response to the death of conspecifics, and may have some awareness of death. This information furthers our understanding of the emotional and cognitive complexities of highly social elephants, and contributes to the growing field of elephant thanatology.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

References

  1. Anderson JR (2016) Comparative thanatology. Curr Biol 26:R553–R556

  2. Anderson JR (2017) Comparative evolutionary thanatology of grief, with special reference to nonhuman primates. Jpn Rev Cult Anthropol 18:173–189

  3. Anderson JR, Biro D, Pettitt P (2018) Evolutionary thanatology. Philos Trans R Soc B 373:20170262. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0262

  4. Appleby R, Smith B, Jones D (2013) Observations of a free-ranging adult female dingo (Canis dingo) and littermates’ responses to the death of a pup. Behav Process 96:42–46

  5. Bates LA, Poole JH, Byrne RW (2008) Elephant cognition. Curr Biol 18:R544–R546

  6. Bearzi G, Eddy L, Piwetz S, Reggente MAL, Cozzi B (2017) Cetacean behavior toward the dead and dying. In: Vonk J, Shackelford TK (eds) Encyclopedia of animal cognition and behavior. Springer, Berlin, pp 1–30. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6

  7. Bercovitch FB (2012) Giraffe cow reaction to the death of her newborn calf. Afr J Ecol 51:376–379. https://doi.org/10.1111/aje.12016

  8. Bercovitch FB (2019) A comparative perspective on the evolution of mammalian reactions to dead conspecifics. Primates 20:1–8

  9. de Silva S (2010) Acoustic communication in the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus maximus. Behaviour 1:825–852

  10. de Silva S, Wittemyer G (2012) A comparison of social organization in Asian elephants and African savannah elephants. Int J Primatol 33:1125–1141

  11. de Silva S, Schmid V, Wittemyer G (2017) Fission–fusion processes weaken dominance networks of female Asian elephants in a productive habitat. Behav Ecol 28:243–252

  12. Douglas-Hamilton I, Bhalla S, Wittemyer G, Vollrath F (2006) Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Appl Anim Behav Sci 100:87–102

  13. Gonçalves A, Biro D (2018) Comparative thanatology, an integrative approach: exploring sensory/cognitive aspects of death recognition in vertebrates and invertebrates. Philos Trans R Soc B 16(373):20170263

  14. Gonçalves A, Carvalho S (2019) Death among primates: a critical review of non-human primate interactions towards their dead and dying. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc 10:15

  15. Green S (1975) Variation of vocal pattern with social situation in the Japanese monkey (Macaca fuscata): a field study. In: Rosenblum LA (ed) Primate behavior, vol 4. Academic, New York, pp 1–102

  16. Hart BL, Hart LA, Pinter-Wollman N (2008) Large brains and cognition: where do elephants fit in? Neurosci Biobehav Rev 32:86–98

  17. Hawley CR, Beirne C, Meyer A, Poulsen JR (2018) Conspecific investigation of a deceased forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Pachyderm 26:97–100

  18. Iglesias TL, McElreath R, Patricelli G (2012) Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics. Anim Behav 84:1103–1111

  19. López-Riquelme GO, Fanjul-Moles ML (2013) The funeral ways of social insects. Social strategies for corpse disposal. Trends Entomol 9:71–129

  20. McComb K, Moss C, Sayialel S, Baker L (2000) Unusually extensive networks of vocal recognition in African elephants. Anim Behav 59:1103–1109

  21. McComb K, Baker L, Moss C (2006) African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species. Biol Lett 2:26–28

  22. Merte CE, Gough KF, Schulte BA (2008) Investigation of a fresh African elephant carcass by conspecifics. Pachyderm 46:124–126

  23. Moss CJ (1988) Elephant memories: thirteen years in the life of an elephant family. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

  24. Nair S, Balakrishnan R, Seelamantula CS, Sukumar R (2009) Vocalizations of wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus): structural classification and social context. J Acoust Soc Am 126:2768–2778

  25. Nandini S, Keerthipriya P, Vidya TN (2017) Seasonal variation in female Asian elephant social structure in Nagarahole-Bandipur, southern India. Anim Behav 134:135–145

  26. Palkopoulou E, Lipson M, Mallick S, Nielsen S, Rohland N et al (2018) A comprehensive genomic history of extinct and living elephants. PNAS 115:E2566–E2574

  27. Plotnik JM, de Waal FB (2014) Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) reassure others in distress. PeerJ 18(2):e278

  28. Plotnik JM, de Waal FB, Moore D III, Reiss D (2010) Self-recognition in the Asian elephant and future directions for cognitive research with elephants in zoological settings. Zoo Biol 29:179–191

  29. Poole JH, Granli P (2011) Signals, gestures, and behavior of African elephants. In: Moss C, Croze H, Lee PC (eds) The Amboseli elephants. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 109–124

  30. Quintana-Rizzo E, Wells RS (2016) Behavior of an adult female bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) toward an unrelated dead calf. Aquat Mamm 42:198–202

  31. Santini L (2012) Conflictual behavior in a lemur mother toward a dying infant. Lemur News 16:26–27

  32. Sukumar R (1989) The Asian elephant: ecology and management. Cambridge University Press, New York

  33. Sukumar R (1994) Elephant days and nights. Ten years with the Indian elephant. Oxford University Press, Delhi

  34. Sukumar R (2003) The living elephants: evolutionary ecology, behaviour, and conservation. Oxford University Press, New York

  35. Sukumar R, Suresh HS, Dattaraja HS, John R, Joshi NV (2004) Mudumalai forest dynamics plot, India. In: Losos EC, Leigh EG Jr (eds) Tropical forest diversity and dynamism: findings from a large-scale plot network. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 551–563

  36. Sun Q, Haynes KF, Zhou X (2013) Differential undertaking response of a lower termite to congeneric and conspecific corpses. Sci. Rep 3:1650

  37. Swift K, Marzluff JM (2018) Occurrence and variability of tactile interactions between wild American crows and dead conspecifics. Philos Trans R Soc B 373:20170259

  38. Synchronized Elephant Population Estimation (2017) Statistics from the Project Elephant Division, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India

  39. Vidya TN, Prasad D, Ghosh A (2014) Individual identification in Asian elephants. Gajah 40:3–17

  40. Watson CF, Matsuzawa T (2018) Behaviour of nonhuman primate mothers toward their dead infants: uncovering mechanisms. Philos Trans R Soc B 373:20170261

Download references

Acknowledgements

Firstly, we thank all the elephants in our study area for allowing us to observe them peacefully. We would like to thank Mr. Krishna, Mr. Prabhu, Mr. Kethan and Mr. Maadan for helping us to track elephants in the field. We also thank all the forest officials, anti-poaching guards and mahouts at the Bandipur and Mudumalai for providing their valuable support during the field work. We acknowledge the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Forestry departments for giving us necessary permissions to conduct the research at Bandipur NP and Mudumalai NP, respectively. We also thank Prof. James R. Anderson and Mr. Andre Gonçalves for all the inputs and discussion while preparing this manuscript. We would also like to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for providing critical feedback and comments on our manuscript. We would like to thank the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, under the DBT-Indian Institute of Science partnership programme, the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, London, UK (RSG13124-1), the Leading Graduate Program in Primatology and Wildlife Science, Kyoto University, Japan, for their financial supports during our fieldwork. RS was a JC Bose National Fellow during the tenure of this work.

Author information

Correspondence to Nachiketha Sharma or Raman Sukumar.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sharma, N., Pokharel, S.S., Kohshima, S. et al. Behavioural responses of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) towards dying and dead conspecifics. Primates 61, 129–138 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-019-00739-8

Download citation

Keywords

  • Asian elephants
  • Death
  • Dead conspecifics
  • Injured calf
  • High-frequency vocalizations
  • Thanatology