Elephants never forget their dead
By Roger Highfield

Legend has it that there are elephant graveyards where the great creatures congregate to mourn the bleached bones of their dead. Scientists ruled out the existence of the graveyards long ago, concluding that the myth arose from the discovery of collections of the remains of animals that had suffered a similar fate, whether at the hands of poachers, becoming trapped or as a result of a natural disaster.

Today, in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, the first hard evidence is published of how elephants, like humans, attach great importance to the dead, feeling moved to touch them with their trunks and feet, and often revisiting carcasses. The study by Karen McComb and Lucy Baker of Sussex University and Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants adds to the mountain of evidence to show that humans have far fewer unique characteristics than once thought.

"Elephants are very unusual. Even if they find an elephant that is long dead, one where the hyenas have taken the stomach out, or even remains where the bones are scattered, they get tense and excited," said Dr McComb. "They often walk in a tight group up to the carcass. They hold their ears slightly out, their heads up and become tense," she said. "They touch the carcass quite extensively with their trunks and smell it with a hovering motion. In the case of ivory they will wrap their trunks around it and carry it around."

Evidence of elephant mourning, though compelling, has been anecdotal until now. Working in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya the team carried out the first systematic study of elephant empathy for the dead, presenting elephants with a range of objects including elephant skulls, ivory, the skulls of rhino and buffalo, and pieces of wood.

"They are not interested in dead mammals but in other dead elephants," she said. Again and again the elephants were most intrigued by the remains of their own kind. In particular, they were most attracted by the ivory from elephant tusks over other remains, such as the skulls. "The ivory was massively preferred, even though it was the smallest object on offer."

The great creatures place their feet - which have a sense of feeling - "lightly on the ivory and rock it gently back and forth," she added.

The team said that the preference for ivory was very marked. "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."

Amboseli had three elephant families that, in the past five years, had lost matriarchs in their female-dominated society. But when the families were presented with these remains, they did not distinguish between the skull of their own matriarch and those of unrelated matriarchs.

Although elephants have roughly the same lifespan as humans, and even cry, they do not mourn kin in the way that we do. Humans appear unique because of the greater importance they attach to the bodies of a parent or child compared with the remains of others.