Emotional Elephants

June 27, 2011

Eva Gusnowski

Elephants have to be one of my favorite animals (besides the giant African rat, of course). Aside from their sheer size and the fact that they never forget, everything about them is just awesome. If I could, I would want one as a pet, but since I don’t want Bob Barker coming after me, I’ll try and refrain for now.

science in seconds, emotional elephants

When we think about what makes us, as a species, uniquely “human,” a few things spring to mind; relationships, personality, rituals, etc. But when we look to the rest of the animal kingdom, these identifiers no longer seem so unique. Many species of animals develop monogamous relationships, help raise their kin’s children, are extremely social and have very specific and unique personalities. Anybody who can tell me that their cat or dog doesn’t have a personality is, in my mind, a little off their rocker.  Because mine sure do.

So what about rituals? The mating rituals of many animals (and even insects) have been well studied, requiring intricate dances or songs before the, ahem, actual mating occurs. But it gets even more complicated than that for elephants.

Most of the time, when we watch animals in their interactions, we think about how little they care about each other after they die. Sometimes they will look at or touch the carcass of a recently deceased friend or family member, sometimes even digging in for dinner as was observed in lion prides. But rarely are the bones of a deceased social partner revisited or mourned over. This is where elephants have displayed behavior that exceeds our human expectations.

African elephants that encounter the remains of long deceased elephants become agitated, and begin to touch the remains with their trunks and feet, spending most of their time on the skulls and ivory (even more so on the ivory than the skull). This is not just general interest or curiosity in something new either. A 2005 study has shown that when presented with wood, other objects or the skeletal remains of other mammals, elephants always spent more time touching the elephant remains, again paying most of their attention to the skulls and ivory.

science in seconds, emotional elephants

It had been suggested many times that elephants recognize and visit the remains of deceased family members. However, when the elephants were presented with the skulls of their own matriarch versus two other matriarchs, they spent about the same amount of time on each skull. So they might not be able to distinguish family members from a group of remains, but since elephants show such a high level of interest in other elephant remains, if they were to visit a skeleton within their home range it is highly likely that they are in fact visiting the remains of a family member. Elephants have even been seen “burying” the recently deceased by covering them with leaves and branches, and have been reported to shed salt tears when sad.

I really like that science is now showing animals in a new light, with feelings, relationships and compassion. Especially the elephant…after being hunted solely for its ivory for so long, hopefully studies like these will encourage people to see these animals as wonderful creatures and discourage poaching.

Because, after all, this all sounds pretty human-like to me.

science in seconds, emotional elephants



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