- A team of scientists used YouTube videos to observe how elephants mourn their dead, according to a new article.
- They found 39 videos capturing 24 instances of elephants crying over lost members of their herd, according to the study.
- Scientists have been surprised to see female elephants carrying dead calves for days or weeks at a time.
Biologist Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel had observed only one instance of Asian elephants mourning their dead in the wild after four years of fieldwork in India, according to Science.org – the journal of the American Association for the advancement of science.
Some of his colleagues, who had spent decades observing wild elephants, only saw the creatures show their grief “a few times”, according to the newspaper.
Struggling to capture first-hand images for their research, a team of scientists from the Center for Ecological Science at the Indian Institute of Science tried something new; they turned to YouTube.
Searching for terms such as “Asian elephant death” and “elephant response to death,” Science.org said the team was able to find a wealth of new data.
They found 39 videos capturing 24 instances of elephants mourning their dead, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
In the videos, the research team observed mourning behaviors in elephants.
According to The New York Times, they have seen elephants sniff and touch carcasses with their trunks, shake the dead with their legs and kick dying calves in an apparent attempt to revive them.
The elephants also trumpeted and roared in response to the deaths, The New York Times reported, and held a vigil for lost members of their herd by staying close to bodies and chasing away curious humans.
In one case, a calf snuggled up to its dying mother, and in another example, adult elephants used their trunks to gently pat their friends’ heads, according to Science.org.
Most surprising, Pokharel told the newspaper, was seeing adult female elephants carrying the bodies of dead calves. It has been observed in five cases, The New York Times reported.
According to Science.org, female elephants, presumably mothers, could be seen carrying the babies through the forests for days or even weeks.
The work is part of a growing field called comparative thanatology – the scientific study of death and dying.
The method of crowdsourcing videos, by science, is sometimes referred to as iEcology. It involves using online resources to generate ecological information.
Research into how elephants cry will be helpful, Pokharel told The New York Times, because it “gives us insight into their very complex cognitive abilities.”