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 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.’