Elephants show compassion after a death of their own species

(08.09.2006) A study demonstrates that elephants show caring behaviour towards other elephants in distress and that they have a strong interest in the dead bodies of other elephants. Furthermore, this behaviour is not restricted to immediate kin, which leads researchers to believe elephants may, like humans, show the emotion of compassion.

The research team from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, the charity ‘Save the Elephants’, and the University of California recorded the behaviour of elephants towards a dying and later dead matriarch in a study to be published in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The study was carried out in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya where ‘Save the Elephants’ has a research station, in order to closely monitor the local elephant population. Data collected over ten years gives fascinating insights into the associations and ‘family units’ of this important population of over 900 individually known elephants. Movements of 50 animals of both sexes are constantly tracked using global positioning satellite (GPS) collars. For this study they also took digital photographs, automatically dated and timed, to record visits of elephants to the dead matriarch.

The research team describe how a dying elephant matriarch, they called Eleanor, was assisted by the unrelated matriarch of another family. Over the next week they also tracked other elephants that visited the dying and then dead matriarch and recorded the caring behaviour that they showed. Such behaviour is rare and difficult to observe in nature. Techniques of remote sensing in this case made it possible to collect continuous data on the death of Eleanor, and the reactions of three tagged animals, which could be tracked at the same time.

From radio tracking and direct or recorded observations, this study shows that five families visited the dead Eleanor, showing a distinct interest in her body, One of these families was her own, but the researchers noted that Eleanor also received visits from elephants that were not normally associated with her, nor were they closely related. The study concludes that elephants are interested in the sick, dying or dead elephants, irrespective of a genetic relationship.

The authors said: ‘It leads to the conclusion that elephants have a generalised response to suffering and death of con-specifics and that this is not restricted to kin. It is an example of how elephants and humans may share emotions, such as compassion, and have an awareness and interest about death.’

Most animals, unlike humans, appear to show little interest in the dead bodies of their own species, although some like chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants have been described as being concerned about ailing or dead members of their species.

Lead author Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, from the Oxford Zoology Department and Founder of ‘Save the Elephants’, said: ‘ This behaviour in an animal species can be compared to human behaviour and indicates that such feelings as compassion may not be restricted to our species alone.’

Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the Department of Zoology, said: ‘ These fortuitous and fascinating insights into elephant life were possible only because of the detailed, long-term monitoring of this important Northern Kenyan elephant population.’

The full article ‘Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch’, by Iain Douglas-Hamilton et al. in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, is published on www.sciencedirect.com.

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