Elephant behavior toward the dead: A review and insights from field observations

Abstract

Many nonhuman animals have been documented to take an interest in their dead. A few socially complex and cognitively advanced taxa—primates, cetaceans, and proboscideans—stand out for the range and duration of behaviors that they display at conspecific carcasses. Here, we review the literature on field observations of elephants at carcasses to identify patterns in behaviors exhibited. We add to this literature by describing elephant responses to dead elephants in the Samburu National Reserve, northern Kenya. The literature review indicated that behavior of elephants at carcasses most often included approaches, touching, and investigative responses, and these occurred at varying stages of decay, from fresh carcasses to scattered and sun-bleached bones. During our own observations, we also witnessed elephants visiting and revisiting carcasses during which they engaged in extensive investigative behavior, stationary behavior, self-directed behavior, temporal gland streaming, and heightened social interactions with other elephants in the vicinity of a carcass. Elephants show broad interest in their dead regardless of the strength of former relationships with the dead individual. Such behaviors may allow them to update information regarding their social context in this highly fluid fission–fusion society. The apparent emotionality and widely reported inter-individual differences involved in elephant responses to the dead deserve further study. Our research contributes to the growing discipline of comparative thanatology to illuminate the cognition and context of nonhuman animal response to death, particularly among socially complex species.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Kenyan Office of the President of the Republic of Kenya, the Samburu and Isiolo governments, and the Kenya Wildlife Service for permission to conduct research in Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. Jerenimo Leperei assisted with data collection. The project was funded by Save the Elephants, the National Science Foundation GRFP (#DGE-1321845), and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.

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Correspondence to Shifra Z. Goldenberg.

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Goldenberg, S.Z., Wittemyer, G. Elephant behavior toward the dead: A review and insights from field observations. Primates 61, 119–128 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5

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Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Death and dying
  • Evolutionary thanatology
  • Loxodonta africana
  • Loxodonta cyclotis
  • Social complexity