October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

I know, I know, I used the word “mourn” in the title. I could almost feel the disapproving eyes boring into my head as I wrote it. But before anyone accuses me of anthropomorphism let me ask you a question, why would it have been more acceptable to say “Do elephants grieve”? or perhaps “A behavioural reaction to a dying and deceased matriarch”?

It is amazing the difference that a few words make. All these titles are talking about the same subject, but the last one sounds infinitely more acceptable to our scientifically trained ears. The last one is actually the title to the scientific paper that goes with the photo. In it the researchers describes the death of “Eleanor” the leader of a the “First Lady” herd in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. This is what happened:

Day 1. Eleanor is found with a swollen trunk which she drags along the ground. She has abrasions to one ear and to one leg, as well as a broken tusk. Standing still for a while she takes a few steps forward and then falls to the ground. Grace, an elephant from another herd, approaches rapidly. Using her tusks she lifts Eleanor back onto her feet. Eleanor stands for a short while but is unable to maintain her upright position. Grace appears to be stressed, vocalizing, and continuing to push Eleanor with her tusks. Grace stays with her for at least another hour as night falls.

Day 2. Eleanor is dead. Maui a female from another herd approaches the body showing a strong behavioural response. She extends her trunk and touches Eleanor, standing over the body and rocks to and fro. The attention lasts for just under 8 minutes.

Day 3. Grace returns with her family and stands silently by the carcass. Another elephant sniffs the blood around Eleanor’s tusk. Maya and the rest of Eleanor’s family members return to stand by the carcass. Eleanor’s 6-month-old calf nuzzles the body. Twelve minutes later an unrelated family approaches, pushing the rest of Eleanor’s family away in order to sniff the body. They do not push the calf away.

Day 4: The carcass is visited by various scavengers.

Day 5: Maya returns to the carcass.

Day 6: Sage, elephant from another herd finds the body and shows a strong behavioural response. Nudging and pushing at Eleanor for 3 minutes.

Day 7: Eleanor’s family return to the death site and spend thirty minutes nearby before moving on.

There is something about elephant behaviour, like what was described above, that makes it hard not to use words like “mourning” and “compassion” when discussing them. Even my old zoology textbook slips into words like “remarkable altruism” when discussing elephant behaviour to the dying. Whether elephants truly mourn their dead is for you to decide. I will however end with a quote from the paper itself: “Combined with earlier work and the data of other scientists it leads to the conclusion that elephants have a generalized response to suffering and death of conspecifics and that this is not restricted to kin. It is an example of how elephants and humans may share emotions, such as compassion, and have an awareness and interest about death”. Strong words for a research paper and I must say that I would have to agree.