Do elephants really "mourn" their dead?

I’ve been meaning to ask about this since the most recent elephant death at the Toronto Zoo in November (the third in two years, actually). This article about the death of matriarchal elephant ‘Tara’ wasn’t the only one I saw at that time which included statements such as the surviving elephants having a “grieving period” and that they “were given time alone with Tara’s body . . . to mourn their loss”.

Is this concept of elephants “grieving” and “mourning” anything more than teleological projection of human emotion onto animal behaviour? Or, has it been validated in some way (although, I’m not even sure how that could be done).


It’s obvious that elephants exhibit behavior that we label as being fueled by grief but whether this is actually so is hard to say. What? The elephants are capable of extending incredible compassion to dead individuals they didn’t even know but lack the compassion to suckle the orphaned child? The elephants might not understand the death of their comrades (I’ve had rats die before and their mates would continue to mount their carcasses. Granted, elephants are more intelligent than rats); perhaps they’re investigating? I’m not an elephant expert so I’m not equipped to offer more than that (uneducated) guess. But my quick search didn’t reveal anyone who thought that these elephants weren’t grieving so it seems most people are convinced that these are genuine displays.

I read this great article in the NYT a few years ago that suggested they do indeed.

An Elephant Crackup?

Good find, psycat90. That sounds pretty cool.

I saw a documentary ages ago that followed a herd of African elephants for a year or something. At one point they came across the bones of an elephant - completely unconnected to that herd - and lined up to walk past the bones, stroking them with their trunks.

Any theories on why the cub was abandoned? Is this usual? I’ve read that elephants suckle for years- perhaps this is why.

Also, wouldn’t it have been possible to bottle nurse the infant? A really big bottled admittedly, but surely something is available.

I live in Montgomery, Alabama where our zoo has had deaths of mother and calf in childbirth as well in recent years.

The story I linked to didn’t take place in a zoo. Researchers typically make it a point not to interfere with nature as they observe animals in the wild (remember how all the fans of Meerkat Manor lost their shit when the researchers didn’t rescue one of their precious babies from a snake or whatever?).

I saw the same documentary, or at least one that included a similar scene.

Thanks to all (and terrific links, by the way).

You make an interesting point. But that’s the thing about emotional responses - they often don’t make sense from a logical perspective :wink:

In any case, your wording is critical "behavior we label as being fueled by grief . . . " I think that’s the best we can do - admit that this is just our take on their behavior and not claim it represents ‘genuine’ grief (or whatever emotion we’ve projected).

I guess elephants really never do forget.

Here’s a really cool video about an elephant and her canine “best friend.” Watch this and you will have no doubt that elephants are capable of deep emotional attachment.

Damn, that is some seriously lame “news”

I’m still tearing up. The actual story is great. The “news” part of it is complete shit, but damn -

The dog letting the elephant stroke its belly with her foot? sob. That’s just so…sweet. The elephant keeping a vigil over the injured dog? cry

Researcher #1: You go milk the elephant.

Researcher #2: No, you go milk the elephant!

Researcher #1: Let’s get Mikey.

Researcher #2: Yeah, let’s get that rat bastard. He hates everything. Get’s on my nerves that one.

Researcher #1: He’s milking it! Hey Mikey! Hey… hey… HEY MIKEY!!! GET OUT!!!

Researcher #2:

Researcher #1: You write to Mikey’s parents…

Heres a great video. It shows a baby elephant that fell into some water. Watch what the family does to rescue it. It’s really quite amazing to hear the frantic calls and see the cooperation to save the calf.

There are lots of creatures that ‘mourn’. There is a species of lizard, I am blanking on the name right now, that is the only lizard that mates for life. They are very slow movers and sometimes one of the mates gets run down in the road. The other lizard will sit by its side, sometimes for days, nudging the body.

And that is a lizard. Elephants are on a whole other order.

Humans have had practices of burying living relatives with the dead or even burning widows on the dead husband’s funeral pyre. The latter practice is still done sometimes in India.

So… yes, it’s certainly possible that genuine grief can be mixed with a total lack of compassion for the living.

The best non-grief explanation I’ve heard offered is that elephants continue to recognize the scent of another elephant on the bones and that the response may be misplaced greetings, curiosity, protective instincts, etc. rather than what people would really call grief.

Is it compassion or resource management? Can a lactating female elephant, if there even are any in the herd, provide enough nourishment to bring two calves to healthy adulthood? Would even trying to simply doom both calves instead of one?

It’s not only elephants- I’ve sen docuemntary footgae of hipopotamuses standing watch over deceased herd members, prtotecting their bodies from hyenas and other scavengers who want to eat the carcasses.

One needn’t believe animals are “just like us” to acknowledge they can have SOME kind of affection for each other, and are capable of some kind of grief (even if it’s short-lived) for the loss of memebers of the family/pack.

I know you put mourn in quotes, but I don’t think that’s enough. There is no reason to assume that these lizards mourn anything. They may just be hardwired not to stray from their mates. “Mourn” implies an emotion.

Actually, a whole other Class. *Mammalia *vs Reptilia.

This reminds me of a sappy news story I read 15 years ago about a dog’s “loyalty”. An elderly blind man was hospitalized (in Spain, I think)…,and left his faithful guide dog sitting outside the door to the hospital building, with the instructions to “stay”. The man died in the hospital, and the dog remained alongside that door for years. (Hospital staff fed it, and tried to adopt it,but the dog spent all day sitting at the door, waiting for his master to return.)]
This was described in the story as a dog “grieving” and “mourning”.
But it could also be described “a stupid dog who obeys orders unthinkingly and is incapable of any original thought or reacting to changed circumstances.”

Elephants may be the same–they are hardwired that , say, a certain smell (of death) makes them want to linger,touch and absorb that smell. No emotions required.