A New Video Shows How Elephants Pay Their Respects to the Dead

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Photo: William Davies/Getty Images

There are some pretty striking similarities between elephants and humans: Both of us rely on friends and hobbies to keep us happy. As Science of Us has previously noted, elephants are one of the few other species to pass the mirror test, meaning they recognize their own reflections. And, like us, they appear to mourn their dead.

But what does that mean, exactly? It certainly looks like they’re experiencing grief, but some scientists argue that we can’t affix the label to their behavior without knowing for sure what’s going on inside their heads. How much do they grasp the concept of death? Same issue — clearly, based on the rituals they perform for the deceased, they know something, but it’s hard to say for sure how deep that knowledge goes.

And a video published by National Geographic yesterday added a new dimension to a mysterious and complex phenomenon. The footage, taken by researcher Shifra Goldenberg at Kenya’s Sumburu National Reserve in 2013, shows several elephants standing over the remains of an old female named Victoria. She had died of natural cause several weeks before, surrounded by family; the elephants in the video, though, weren’t related to her.

“What the family was doing was interesting, but what her non-relatives were doing is also important,” Goldenberg told National Geographic. “You see their investigation of the body. You see calves walking past and smelling it. It is amazing to see that level of fascination. Her family was distressed that she wasn’t getting up. But the larger population also was interested in her death.”

Biologist George Wittemeyer, who studies elephants, told National Geographic that the animals “have respect for their dead, but their interaction with their dead is not something we fully understand … The fact that they interact and have behavioral interactions with their dead in a form that is not explainable in any simple, evolutionary context speaks to the deeper emotional lives of elephants that we can’t easily study.” Like us, it seems, elephants’ attitudes towards death are complicated, emotional, and sometimes unknowable.