Elephant Calves Found Buried in India: Do They Mourn Like Us?

The age-old myth of elephant graveyards might hold some truth after all. A new study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa describes five instances where Asian elephant calves were found buried in northern Bengal, India. The unusual way they were buried - upright and in irrigation trenches - suggests a deliberate act, possibly hinting at an understanding of death unseen in any other animal besides humans.

The discovery challenges our assumption of human uniqueness when it comes to death rituals. Archaeological evidence suggests our ancestors buried their dead as far back as 100,000 years ago. Burials are significant because they tell us about the mourners' state of mind. They're not just a way to dispose of bodies, but a way to express grief and honor the deceased.

Across cultures, elaborate burial rituals are a testament to our sentience and empathy. Our reaction to death is often seen as a defining human trait. So far, evidence for similar complex understandings of death in animals has been scarce. While some anecdotal stories exist, no animal has been observed systematically burying their dead in a ritualistic way like us.

So, are elephant burials truly intentional? The researchers caution it might be premature to say for sure. The five calf burials weren't directly observed, leaving room for other explanations. Maybe the calves died or weakened, fell into trenches while being carried, and the panicked herd caused the earth to collapse around them.

However, these findings do align with what we know about elephants' strong emotional response to death. They've been observed carrying the bodies of deceased infants and exhibiting behavioral changes near a deceased family member or another elephant. This behavior includes sniffing and touching the body, trying to move it, and sometimes even covering it with mud or leaves - actions remarkably similar to human mourning rituals.

Elephants aren't the only animals with intriguing reactions to dead companions. Crows gather and seemingly "mob" deceased crows, which some interpret as a kind of funeral. This social gathering might be a way for them to learn about a potential threat and avoid a similar fate, rather than a way to say goodbye.

Even some insects like ants exhibit corpse disposal behavior. When they detect chemicals released by dead or dying colony members, they remove the bodies and sometimes even bury them to prevent disease spread. However, researchers studying animal behavior and grief doubt this signifies any real understanding of death in ants.

In the 1950s, an experiment applied these death-related chemicals to live ants, tricking their nest mates into treating them as dead. The ants attempted to remove the "deceased" ant from the nest. Similar reactions were observed in rats who tried to bury dead and even anesthetized (but alive) rats treated with the same chemicals. They even attempted to bury sticks with the scent of decay. This suggests a hardwired instinct in some social animals to remove decaying objects from their surroundings.

The behavior of rats and ants is clearly distinct from human burial practices and the mourning observed in elephants and other species like orcas.

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