When a predator approaches, does an ostrich bury its head in the sand thinking: “If I can’t see it, it can’t see me.”? Do red rags make bulls lose their cool? Will the relatives of a deceased stoat carry its body in a solemn funeral procession? Elephants, who ‘never forget’, are said to grieve, as do magpies. What truth, if any, lies behind such notions?
The ostrich, with excellent vision, can spot a stalking enemy even at night and escape on powerful legs; there is no sticking-of-heads-in-sand for the world’s largest bird.
Bulls are colour-blind; the matador’s cape is red for dramatic effect.
Nor have stoat ‘funerals’ ever been documented.
But not all such piseogs are without a grain of truth. Marc Bekoff of Colorado University studied magpies inspecting corpses of their dead. Birds would nudge the carcass and step back. One brought turfs of grass and laid them beside the body. Does this show that magpies have feelings?
It’s true that elephants have excellent memories. If a herd runs low on salt, a Kenyan matriarch may lead her troop deep into caves in Mount Elgon, where the mineral is abundant. Not having visited the extinct volcano in years, or decades, she remembers being taken there by her granny long ago.
Halting to examine carcasses is deemed “the strangest thing about elephants”. Zoologists Shifra Goldenberg and George Wittenmyer have analysed well-documented cases of the behaviour and carried out field observations in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. Their results appear in the journal Primates.
Elephants, they conclude, are intrigued by death; that these animals have a morbid streak is no old wives tale. Individuals will respond to an elephant carcase they encounter, whether the deceased was likely to have been a relative or not. They will touch and sniff the remains, irrespective of its state of decay from freshly dead to sun-bleached bones. If the death is recent, they will try to raise the corpse and get it back on its feet. Some elephants visit a carcase repeatedly.
These, the largest land-mammals on Earth, live in extended social groups which divide and merge over time. This requires individuals to recognise many others and remember their identities. Elephants have an acute sense of smell and use it to identify a dead animal. Their celebrated powers of recall might help them do so, but surely there is more going on than that.
Such behaviour is not unique to elephants. Chimpanzee mothers may carry the dead body of an infant for days, poignant testimony to the close mother-infant bond found among primates. These apes, our closest living relatives, are self-aware. It seems certain that they experience the pain of loss and grief.
In 2008, zoologist Fred Bercovitch described an incident in which a month-old giraffe died of natural causes. The carcase “was surrounded by 17 extremely vigilant and agitated female giraffes, one of which was the calf’s mother”, he wrote. Three days later, she was still standing next to the carcase.
Such funereal rituals remain mysterious. Do ‘body-guarding’ and ‘explore-touching’ show that that elephants and giraffes experience ‘emotions’ similar to ours?
Shifra Goldenberg & George Wittenmyer. Elephant behaviour toward the dead: A review and insights from field observations. Primates, November 2019.