Tusk to dust. A group of elephants check out skulls from an elephant, a rhino, and a buffalo.

An Elephant Never Forgets ... Its Mortality

Anthropologists often cite prehistoric burial rituals as a sign of an emerging human consciousness. But is a preoccupation with one's dead exclusively a human trait? New research shows that, when elephants are offered an array of objects and bones, they behave uniquely toward elephant skulls and ivory, suggesting the creatures may have a special affinity for their dead.

Many animals have only a passing interest in deceased group members. Biologists have observed chimpanzees interacting with dead chimps, but this interest wanes after the body begins to decompose. Several documented instances have shown that elephants will linger--often in an agitated state--around a dying or dead elephant, and there is anecdotal evidence that they will visit the bones of dead relatives. What has not been clear is whether this is just an inherent curiosity in animal remains or if it is exclusive to expired elephants.

While studying elephant calls in Amboseli National Park in Kenya (ScienceNOW, 19 April 2001), zoologist Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom and her colleagues devised a simple set of tests to study elephants' association with their dead. They placed three objects in the vicinity of roughly 20 different family groups and then filmed what transpired from a distance. Of the various choices presented, the elephants spent significantly more time smelling or touching bleached elephant skulls than they did a piece of wood or a bleached skull from a rhino or a buffalo. The elephants showed the most interest in pieces of ivory, which may be related to the occasional tusk touching between live elephants, McComb speculates.

When surveying the skulls of three recently deceased matriarchs, the elephants did not prefer the one from their own relative. This implies that reported "grave visits" are not likely due to a special attachment to family remains but instead result from a combination of a species-specific interest and the fact that relatives likely die within the home range, the team reports 26 October Biology Letters.

This work is "exceedingly interesting" because it is the first to apply an experimental approach to the issue, says elephant expert and conservationist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who was one of the first to document elephant interactions with remains. Cognitive scientist Colin Allen of Indiana University, Bloomington, was impressed that elephants were drawn to elephant skulls, because "it's something they don't normally see" beneath the flesh of their living companions.

Related sites
McComb's Web site
Save the Elephants charity (founded by Douglas-Hamilton)

Posted in Environment