Most animals don’t seem to show too much interest in their deceased kin. Elephants are unusual in that they not only show dramatic responses to other dead elephants, but that they may also investigate the bones of other elephants long after they have died. As humans, we often associate this with our own rituals of mourning the passing of close kin. This poses the common question, do elephant graveyards exist? The answer is no.
There is no particular place that elephants will go to die. Elephant bones are large and conspicuous, and are often too large to be carried off or broken down by scavengers such as vultures and hyenas. As a result, these carcasses may have been more frequently noticed by early naturalists. Furthermore, in areas where they are threatened, older bull elephants may also move into areas where there are less people, which could have given the impression that these bulls were going to certain areas to die.
A few months ago we came across the carcass of a bull elephant who had been killed in a fight with another bull. Radiating in all directions from the carcass were several pathways created by elephants, but until recently we had never had the opportunity to observe what the elephants were actually doing around the carcass. A few days ago we followed a bull elephant who was walking in the direction of the carcass. At this point there was nothing left of the dead elephant apart from a few scattered, sun bleached bones. However, realizing that this may be an opportunity to record his reaction, we drove ahead and waited for him to arrive at the carcass.
When the bull arrived at the carcass, he immediately hesitated and stood in dead silence. He approached the bones and began to touch and smell them with his trunk. He then gently picked up the bones and moved them around. We will never know exactly what was going through his mind, but we do know that there was some level of either excitement or distress because his temporal glands began to stream with liquid. Before leaving he began to throw several of the bones around and on one occasion even walked off with the femur of the dead elephant in his trunk.
Could this behavior just be a response to a novel object? Experiments have shown that this is not the case. Elephants tend to show more interest in the bones or tusks of other elephants than random objects or even the bones of other species. Could it then be possible that elephants could recognize other elephants from the bones? More studies have also shown that this probably not the case. In areas like Amboseli National Park, where elephant families are well known, elephants would still show the same behavior toward elephant bones, even if the dead elephant was not from the same family group.
What remains unclear is why elephants show this kind of behavior. We know that elephants possess a large volume of cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that processes memory, consciousness and awareness. However, the deeper emotional lives of elephants remain something that we know very little about. Despite this, there does appear to be a clear interest shown by elephants toward the carcasses of other elephants. Although we may not yet fully understand it, there is something going on. Have you ever witnessed anything like this or have read anything that further explains this behaviour? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below so that we can delve deeper into the mystery together.