Researchers had long heard stories about Asian elephants seemingly mourning their dead—and had even witnessed these behaviors in the wild a handful of times. But the large forest dwellers are elusive, and mourning behaviors are a relatively rare occurrence, which makes studying the animals’ funeral practices difficult, if not impossible. To see them, scientists need to be incredibly lucky and be at the right place at the right time.
So, scientists turned to YouTube to understand and document Asian elephants’ reactions to death, a type of behavior known as thanatological responses. In a new paper published in May in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers shared their unorthodox study methods and reported their insights into elephant death responses, some of which were unexpected.
“There were stories about it, there was newspaper documentation, but there was no scientific documentation,” Sanjeeta Pokharel, a biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and one of the study’s authors, tells the New York Times’ Elizabeth Preston.
Scientists are increasingly turning to open-source videos, like those found on YouTube, to better understand hard-to-study animals, an approach that’s been termed “iEcology.” From determining how drones are disturbing birds to exploring the grooming and feeding behavior of red and grey squirrels in urban scenarios, researchers are combing through crowdsourced videos to save time, expand their sample sizes and analyze rare behaviors.
"You have to be there at the right time and what are the chances of scientists being in the right place at huge expense?” Ximena Nelson, an animal behaviorist at the University of Canterbury, tells BBC News’ Victoria Gill.
To analyze Asian elephants’ thanatological responses, the scientists used search queries like “Asian elephant death” and “elephant response to death” on YouTube. After sifting through the internet’s vast trove of footage, they focused their efforts on 39 videos that captured 24 instances of Asian elephant mourning behaviors from 2010 to 2021, plus an additional video provided by one of the paper’s co-authors.
Some common themes stood out. In the videos, Asian elephants regularly stood guard over the bodies of the deceased, changed their postures, made noises and investigated and touched the corpses. Periodically, elephants also appeared to reassure each other while responding to death, touching each other with their trunks or heads, sniffing each other or displaying “calming-like interactions,” the researchers write in the paper.
Surprisingly, in five cases, adult females picked up the bodies of calves and carried them through the forest. That’s unusual behavior that suggests the female elephant can tell something is wrong.
Though the presence of humans capturing these interactions on video may have influenced the Asian elephants’ behavior, the study still offers valuable insights into elephant behaviors and adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests they are highly intelligent, per the researchers. Elephants can sniff out the differences between food quantities, tell when their bodies are in the way (a special type of body awareness) and move items to stand on and reach food, among other abilities.
Still, researchers are reluctant to assign human emotions to animals. Though the elephants may appear to be mourning in the same way that humans do, scientists need to do more research to tap into the animals’ motivations. For now, though, as Shermin de Silva, a biologist with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka who was not involved in the study, tells Science’s Jack Tamisiea, studies like this one “help bridge that emotional divide between humans and other species.”