In September 2018, near the Indian city of Tumkur, villagers recorded a beleaguered Asian elephant trying to bring the limp body of its dead calf back to life. As her ears fluttered in distress, she used her trunk and feet to jostle the lifeless carcass for more than 24 hours. Eventually, 12 other adults gathered around the deceased calf, as if to comfort the mother.
Such apparent manifestations of mourning are extremely difficult to spot – let alone study – in the dense jungles of South Asia. But now, thanks to a few dozen YouTube videos, scientists finally have the data they need to analyze the painful displays of these elusive pachyderms. And they found some surprises.
Conservation biologist Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel had observed only one case of an elephant responding to the death of another, after 4 years of fieldwork in India. Even colleagues who had spent decades studying Asian elephants in the bush had seen these “thanatological behaviors” only a handful of times. So Pokharel and his team at the Center for Ecological Science at the Indian Institute of Science turned to YouTube.
Researchers entered search terms such as “Asian elephant death” and “elephant response to death”. In the end, they collected 39 videos capturing 24 cases of thanatological behavior in Asian elephants between 2010 and 2021.
The videos recorded several gripping scenes, the team reports today in Royal Society Open Science: Elephants tapping with their trunks a deceased family member or trying to revive him by kicking him, and gathering, in vigil, near his remains.
Some of the videos also captured rarer behaviors never described in detail before. In several clips, adult elephants use their trunks to pat their living friends on the head; in another, a calf snuggles up to its dying mother, trapped in slimy mud. In five videos, adult female elephants picked up dead calves with their trunks and carried them through forests for days or even weeks at a time.
“In line [videos] like this offer a fantastic opportunity to observe rare behaviors in elephants,” says Lindsay Murray, an animal psychology researcher at the University of Chester who was not involved in the work. Murray, who has studied how death affected the personalities of surviving Asian elephants at Chester Zoo, herself turned to zoo webcams and online video to remotely study the animals’ behavior during the pandemic.
The new study is part of a growing trend of research using crowdsourced video archives to learn about animal behavior and ecology, called iEcology by some scientists. The researchers used YouTube videos to study everything from behavioral differences between urban and forest squirrels to how drones disturb wildlife like albatrosses and flamingos.
Some of the newly documented pachyderm behaviors, including dead child bearing, have been seen in African elephants, as well as chimpanzees., giraffes, and dolphins. But it’s still unclear whether such actions represent grief or bereavement in the human sense.
Pokharel, who now works with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, thinks it’s possible. “As a human being, when I see an elephant reacting that way, I think he’s emotionally connecting with him,” she says. “But as scientists, we have to prove it.”
For now, Shermin de Silva, conservation biologist and director of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, is convinced. “It’s hard to see behavior like that and not call it heartbreak,” says de Silva, who wasn’t part of the new job. “Studies like this help bridge that emotional gap between humans and other species.”