Gray Mourning

All for one, and one for all :

Crowdsourcing grieving elephants

It was 2013 when Sanjeeta Pokharel first witnessed Asian elephants responding to death.

An older female elephant in the Indian park had died of an infection. A younger female was walking in circles around the carcass. Fresh dung piles hinted that other elephants had recently visited.

''That is where we got curious,'' said Dr. Pokharel, a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She and Nachiketha Sharma, a wildlife biologist in Japan, wanted to learn more.

But it is rare to glimpse such a moment in person, as Asian elephants are elusive forest dwellers. 

For a new paper the scientists used YouTube to crowdsource videos of Asian elephants responding to death. They found reactions that included touching and standing guard as well as nudging, kicking and shaking.

In a few cases, females had even used their trunks to carry calives, or baby elephants, that had died.

African elephants had been found to repeatedly visit and touch carcasses. But for Asian elephants, Dr. Pokharel said, ''There were stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation.

Combing through YouTube, the researchers found 24 cases for study. Scientists do not yet know to what degree elephants grasp the concept of death, rather than just the absence of a herd member whose trunk used to be within reach. 

[Elizabeth Preston]


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