Scientists unravel the mystery of how elephants mourn their dead thanks to YouTube, report says

Scientists unravel the mystery of how elephants mourn their dead thanks to YouTube, report says

Family of Indian elephants in the wild.

Family of Indian elephants in the wild.Getty Images

  • A team of scientists used YouTube videos to observe how elephants mourn their dead, according to a new paper.

  • They found 39 videos capturing 24 cases of elephants mourning lost members of their herd, the study said.

  • The scientists were surprised to see female elephants carrying dead calves for days or weeks at a time.

Biologist Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel had only observed one example of Asian elephants mourning their dead in the wild after four years of fieldwork in India, according to Science.org — the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal.

Some of her colleagues, who had spent decades observing wild elephants, only witnessed the creatures displaying grief a “handful of times,” the journal said.

Struggling to capture first-hand footage for their research, a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Sciences tried something new; they turned to YouTube.

By searching terms like “Asian elephant death” and “elephant response to death,” Science.org said the team was able to find a wealth of new data.

They found 39 videos capturing 24 cases of elephants mourning their dead, per a paper published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

In the videos, the team of researchers observed mourning behaviors in the elephants.

According to The New York Times, they saw elephants sniffing and touching carcasses with their trunks, shaking the dead with their legs, and kicking dying calves in an apparent attempt to revive them.

The elephants also trumpeted and roared in response to the deaths, The New York Times reported, and held a vigil for lost members of their herd by staying near the bodies and chasing away curious humans.

In one case, a calf snuggled with its dying mother, and, in another example, adult elephants used their trunks to gently pat their friends on the head, per Science.org.

Most surprising, Pokharel told the newspaper, was observing adult female elephants carrying the bodies of dead calves. It was observed in five cases, the New York Times reported.

The female elephants, presumably mothers, could be seen carrying the babies through forests for days, possibly weeks, at a time, according to Science.org.

The work is part of a growing field called comparative thanatology — the scientific study of death and dying.

The method of crowdsourcing videos, per science, is sometimes called iEcology. It involves making use of online resources to generate ecological insights.

The research into how elephants mourn will be helpful, Pokharel told The New York Times, because it cold “give us insight about their highly complex cognitive abilities.”

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