Mourning for the deceased

While some animals express their concern for deceased companions (Butler, 2011), the majestic elephants certainly remember their deceased more than others. Research has shown that elephants, like humans, are concerned with deceased individuals, and they show a special interest in dead bodies of their own kind.

They sniff the body, hover their foot over the carcass and lift the body with their tusks, as if they are saying to the dead elephant, “is that you?”

Researchers recorded and photographed the behaviour of elephants following the death of a matriarch, Eleanor, in the Samburu region of Kenya, Africa. Radio tracking and observations recorded that 5 different families of elephants visited Eleanor’s body, showing a distinct interest in her body (Iain Douglas-Hamiltona, 2006).

Video below illustrates how African elephants react when they came across the bones of a matriarch(National Geographic Society, 2012):

In the case of family unit members, the death of a matriarch means a loss of knowledge or care towards others. In some cases, matriarchal knowledge may prove to be critical to the survival of individuals as was found with the Tarangire elephant population (Foley, 2002).

This study concludes that elephants, like humans can show compassionate behaviour to others in distress, irrespective of a genetic relationship. This is important research as it demonstrates that elephants are sentient and conscious animals, which would have implications for animal conservation and animal entertainment sectors (Animal Mosaic, 2006).

But the twist to the study is that there are limits to elephant compassion. Eleanor’s 6-month-old female calf nuzzled her mother’s carcass then walked around appearing confused, trying to suckle from other young calves before returning to her mother. The young calf did not survive long because none of the breeding females who normally associated with Eleanor would adopt her.


Animal Mosaic. (2006). Knowledge Article Hub. Retrieved April 8, 2013, from

Butler, K. (2011, June 14). Do animals mourn? Retrieved April 8, 2013, from Mother Nature Network:

Foley, C. A. (2002). The effects of poaching on elephant social systems. University of Princeton.

Iain Douglas-Hamiltona, S. B. (2006). Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. ScienceDirect , 87-102.

National Geographic Society. (2012). Elephants: Elephants Mourning [Motion Picture]. Retrieved April 10, 2013, from National Geographic Society: