Do elephants intentionally and consciously bury their dead?

A recent study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa sheds light on a fascinating behavior observed in Asian elephants. These majestic creatures have been found to mourn and bury their dead calves, a behavior reminiscent of human funeral rites.

Here are the key findings from the study:

  1. Burial Rituals: Researchers identified five calf burials conducted by Asian elephants in the north of India’s Bengal region between 2022 and 2023. In each case, a herd of elephants carried the deceased calf by the trunk and legs before burying it in the earth with its legs facing upward.
  2. Abnormal Recumbent Style: The carcasses were buried in an abnormal recumbent style, regardless of the reasons for the calf’s death. The elephants carefully placed the calves in this position, suggesting a deliberate and ritualistic act.
  3. No Human Intervention: The study found no direct human intervention in any of the five calf deaths. The elephants buried the calves in irrigation canals on tea estates, away from human settlements.
  4. Unique Behavior: While wild elephants in both Africa and Asia visit carcasses at different stages of decomposition, this study revealed different behaviors from the herds studied. In all cases, the herd fled the burial site within 40 minutes and avoided returning to the area.
  5. Conservation Significance: Asian elephants are recognized as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Understanding their behavior, including this burial ritual, contributes to our knowledge of these magnificent animals and aids in their conservation efforts.

This remarkable discovery highlights the emotional depth and social complexity of elephants, emphasizing their kinship with us humans. 🐘❤️.

Our elephants acting instinctively or does the behaviour reflect an understanding of the implications of death?

Adult elephants and calves
Adult elephants and calves. Image: DALL-E 3
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Instinctive or emotionally driven mourning behaviors?

The question here is whether animals in general and in this case specifically elephants understand the implications of death and deliberately desire to bury their dead as an act of respect and to stop the spread of disease as the body decomposes.

Is the behaviour instinctive or contemplative and deliberate? That’s the issue. Because if it is the latter it might point to the fact that “we are likely not the only animals who experience grief and loss in the same way”. The words come from Doctor Lucy Bates of the University of Portsmouth who I believe is the lead author in this study.

The research comes from India. Doctor Leanne Proops of the University of Portsmouth who wasn’t involved in the research said it would be groundbreaking to discover intentional burials of the kind described in this study.

The issue, though, is whether they were intentional burials. There is not as yet enough evidence to conclusively prove that they were. That’s because the bodies were found in irrigation ditches and it is just conceivable that the elephant fell into these ditches or were dropped into them by accident and that the sides of the irrigation ditch fell in and covered the body. For me, that sounds unlikely but one has to be scientific and balanced in the assessment.

The first sighting of an elephant burial was found in September 2022 and it involved a one year old female. It’s believed that the calf died of a respiratory infection. It appears that her body was carried by the herd to the irrigation ditch judging by the marks on the body.

The body was upside down in the ditch and covered with earth with the feet exposed.

Buried calf
Buried calf. Image believed to come from the study referred to.

Over the next two years four more very similar buried calves were found. They were all less than a year old. They were found in the same region by Parveen Kaswan of the Indian Forest Service. He believes that he discovered a burial site. He worked with his colleague, Doctor Akashdeep Roy of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune.

An interesting aspect of the research is that nobody had noticed dead elephant bodies buried before. Humans have lived side-by-side with elephants for thousands of years so it seems rather odd.

African elephants have been seen burying their dead under leaves which is described as a “weak burial”.

The original question is critical in understanding elephant consciousness. Is this is instinctive behaviour to prevent the spread of disease triggered by chemical signals of decay or whether this is a conscious type of behaviour which is more ritualistic and more meaningful as a consequence.

It does shed some light on animals generally and I hope that it helps people to respect animals as sentient beings.

Self-awareness is a good test as to whether they behave purely instinctively or with deliberation and rational thought.

Are elephants self-aware?

Elephants, like some other highly intelligent animals, exhibit signs of self-awareness. Research and observations have provided insights into their cognitive abilities:

  1. Mirror Test: The mirror test is often used to assess self-awareness. In this test, an animal is exposed to a mirror and observed for reactions. Elephants have demonstrated self-recognition by touching or investigating marks on their bodies while looking at their reflections .
  2. Complex Social Lives: Elephants live in tight-knit family groups with strong bonds. They recognize and remember individual members of their herd, which suggests a level of self-awareness and social cognition .
  3. Tool Use and Problem-Solving: Elephants use tools, such as sticks or branches, to scratch themselves or reach food. Their ability to solve problems and adapt to changing situations indicates a certain level of self-awareness .
  4. Emotional Responses: Elephants display a wide range of emotions, including joy, grief, and empathy. Their mourning rituals for dead herd members and their protective behavior toward injured or distressed individuals highlight their emotional depth .
  5. Long-Term Memory: Elephants have remarkable long-term memory. They remember water sources, migration routes, and even specific humans they’ve encountered. This ability suggests self-awareness and recognition of their own experiences .

While elephants may not exhibit self-awareness in the same way humans do, their behaviors and interactions with their environment and fellow elephants indicate a complex inner life. 🐘❤️

Other animals grieved too

  • Crows: I’m told that when a crow dies other crows might gather around the carcass. These are described as ‘crow funerals’. It is unclear why it happens but it may be because the birds learn how to avoid the fate of their dead.
  • Ants: Some colonies of ants employ “undertakers” to remove dead ants and carry them to a rubbish heap away from the nest. In certain ant species they bury the corpse instead.
  • Dolphins: Dolphins, another known intelligent animal, are reported to guard the corpses of dead pod members. They act aggressively when human divers try to intervene.
  • Chimpanzees: When an infant chimpanzee dies the mother may carry the body around for days or weeks or months. It looks very uncomfortable to the human eye but is a necessary part of chimpanzee grieving behaviour.

What are some other interesting elephant behaviors?

Elephants exhibit a wide range of fascinating behaviors that highlight their intelligence, social dynamics, and unique traits. Here are some captivating aspects of elephant behavior:

  1. Complex Communication: Elephants communicate through a variety of vocalizations, body language, and infrasound (low-frequency sounds). Their trumpeting calls, rumbles, and ear movements convey different messages within the herd.
  2. Tool Use: Elephants have been observed using tools in creative ways. They scratch hard-to-reach areas with sticks, use branches as flyswatters, and even create their own tools to solve problems.
  3. Problem-Solving Skills: Elephants demonstrate impressive problem-solving abilities. They can navigate obstacles, find water sources, and adapt to changing environments.
  4. Social Bonds: Elephants form strong family bonds. They recognize and greet each other after years of separation with wild joy. Their herds are tightly knit, and they care for each other’s young.
  5. Play Behavior: Young elephants engage in playful antics, such as running around, throwing objects, and social grooming. Play helps them learn essential skills and build relationships.
  6. Mourning and Burial Rituals: As mentioned earlier, elephants mourn their dead and have been observed burying their calves. This behavior reflects their emotional depth and social connections.
  7. Environmental Impact: Elephants play a crucial role in shaping their environment. They create waterholes, dig footpaths, and disperse tree seeds through their dung, contributing to ecosystem health.
  8. Remarkable Memory: Elephants have excellent long-term memory. They remember water sources, migration routes, and even individual humans they’ve encountered.
  9. Affectionate Gestures: Elephants express tenderness by caressing each other with their trunks, touching foreheads, and intertwining their trunks.
  10. Salt Mining: In Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya, elephants use their tusks to mine for salt in underground caves.

Sources: multiple sources on the internet were used including: The Times, Elephant Guide, Science Alert, Gulf News, NDTV, Deseret, CNN and more.

Leave a Comment

follow it link and logo