To Study Elephants in Mourning, Researchers Get Creative

It's the first scientific documentation of the behavior in Asian elephants, thanks to YouTube
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted May 18, 2022 9:50 AM CDT

(Newser) – Wildlife biologists used crowdsourced YouTube videos to compile the first scientific documentation of how Asian elephants react to death. It's not that they were afraid to go into the field to study them with their own eyes—the problem is that Asian elephants are jungle dwellers, which makes them hard to observe. And while African elephants are known to mourn their dead, the behavior was less understood in their relatively small-eared Asian counterparts, until now, per the New York Times. In a paper published Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science journal, researchers dove deep into YouTube and examined 24 videos posted by people who'd just happened to observe the animals in mourning.

Asian elephants often use their trunks to touch the face and ears of the deceased and sometimes stand guard over them. Some kick or nudge carcasses as if trying to wake them. They make trumpeting and rumbling noises, and other members of the herd often join in. Among the surprises, a number of females were seen carrying dead calves wrapped in their trunks or balanced on their tusks. Lead researcher Sanjeeta Pokharel hesitates to speculate as to why, but elephants don't usually carry their calves while they're alive. "That carrying itself can indicate they are aware that there's something wrong with the calf," she told the Times.

One researcher not connected to the study called it "wonderful and confirmatory" and said it suggests "an awareness of loss is present in elephants." The research is part of a burgeoning field known as comparative thanatology, the study of how animals react to death. Pokharel hopes it provides insight into elephants' complex cognitive abilities and psychology, which in turn can help inform policies aimed at protecting them. According to Science.org, the use of crowdsourced videos is a growing research trend known as "iEcology," in which scientists have used YouTube "to study everything from behavioral differences between urban and forest-dwelling squirrels to how drones disturb wildlife like albatross and flamingos." (Read more Asian elephants stories.)

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