Asian elephants perceive distress and also respond to it, say researchers

Free-rangers were seen to inspect and support dying calves in the wild.

September 22, 2019 11:00 pm | Updated September 23, 2019 10:58 am IST - Kolkata

Apart from sniffing and physically helping dying calves, elephants also produced high frequency trumpets.

Apart from sniffing and physically helping dying calves, elephants also produced high frequency trumpets.

Even though there are a few anecdotal accounts about Asian elephants’ reaction to death in connection with members of their herd, scientists have for the first time observed and recorded the behavior of free-ranging Asian elephants towards dying and dead elephants.

The paper titled Behavioural responses of free-ranging Asian elephants (elephas maximus) towards dying or dead conspecifics, (conspecifics refers to member of same species) was published in the Springer group of publications earlier this year.

In the publication researchers observed that the elephants showed behaviours like exploratory (sniffing and inspecting) and epimeletic (supporting the distressed animals) or physically helping supporting dying calves.

“We also recorded high frequency vocalisation (trumpets) by an adult female in the case of dying calves. Our observations indicate that, like their African counterparts, Asian elephants might experience distress in response to death of conspecifics and may have some awareness of death,” the paper authored by Nachiketha Sharma, Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, Shiro Kohshima and Raman Sukumar states.

Through the publication scientists have observed and recorded three specific cases of elephants responding to injured, dying or dead conspecifics.

“Two of the three cases involved adult female calf pair and involved epimeletic or helping behavior towards the injured and dying calves. In all three cases, exploratory and approach/visit behaviours towards the dying and dead individuals were observed,” the scientists record in the paper.

Well-known ecologist from the Indian Institute of Science and elephant expert Raman Sukumar who has contributed to the paper said that from the evolutionary biology perspective these behaviours of elephants appear as an adaptive feature. “We are just beginning to understand this, especially the calf deaths because those are not easy to observe in the wild. The whole social cognitive makeup of the elephant, these kinds of significant emotions are a part of this framework,” he said.

Apart from sniffing and physically helping dying calves, elephants also produced high frequency trumpets.

Apart from sniffing and physically helping dying calves, elephants also produced high frequency trumpets.

Prof. Sukumar said that in the case of African elephants a behaviour was observed which involves taking interest in the bones of other elephants. “But that kind of behavior has not been observed in Asian elephants so far,” the scientist said.

In the nine-page long publication, the first example which the scientists cite in this context is of a reaction to a dying calf from an adult female elephant Sita and her two daughters (S1 10-15 years and S2 5-10 years) from Mudumalai National Park in October 2012.

“The three females surrounded the calf with their legs. S1 sniffed the calf, while Sita gently kicked with her forelegs in an attempt to make it stand. S1 and S2 joined Sita to help,” the scientists observed. During the entire period of observations of 506 minutes which included the subsequent day when the calf died, no signs of agitation or aggression were observed from Sita and her daughters and no vocalisations were heard. The scientists observed very little movement from Sita when she was with her calf.

The Forest Department also provided drinking water to the elephants in a large steel container but only Sita drank. She also showed no signs of aggression when the scientists approached the calf. The death of the new born calf was possibly due to dehydration and malnourishment.

In the case of another adult elephant F1 (15 to 20 years old) the reaction to an injured and dying calf appeared to be somewhat different. These observations were recorded in March 2017 when a lone male calf less than a year old rested against the trunk of a dead tree. “The calf stayed in the same position after falling, while F1 touched and sniffed the calf's genital region. F1 blew saliva on herself through her trunk and stood next to the calf, touching it repeatedly. She used her forelegs to encourage the calf to stand on its feet but without much success,” Mr. Sharma said.

Scientists also recorded that when a veterinary team arrived F1 remained vigilant, mock charged the team and displayed body guarding behaviour. In the observation that lasted about 322 minutes, F1 stood vigilant when the veterinary team did an autopsy and during cremation. The cause of death appeared to be injury sustained in a predatory attack by a tiger. Another observation made by the team of researchers is that F1 might not have been mother to the calf as it was still in suckling age and the female showed no signs of lactation.

Commenting on the variability among Asian elephants in response to injured or incapacitated conspecifics the scientists behind the paper observed that age and previous experiences with dying individuals may, therefore, influence the behavioral response of Asian elephants to dying conspecifics.

“Sita, being older than F1, may have greater experience in observing the death of conspecifics and would have interacted with people far more than F1, thus she might have not shown aggression towards the observers,” Dr. Pokharel said, referring to the paper.

The third instance which the publication cites is post-mortem observation (reaction to dead old female from F2 and F3 both 30-40 years old ). These observations to a dead female elephant were recorded in March 2013. A fresh carcass was sighted on the banks of the Kabini reservoir and by the time researchers arrived there with forest officials they found two female elephants at the site. “Two female elephants F2 and F3 were near the carcass. F2 was walking in a circular path while F3 was grazing near the carcass. During her circular movements, F2 did not appear to sniff towards carcass, her trunk stayed low. She did not appear to touch the carcass either by trunk or foot,” the paper said. Meanwhile, the cause of death was deemed to be chronic gastrointestinal infection.

Emphasising that the study shows that Asian elephants perceive distress and respond to dying conspecifcs, the authors of the publication said that the most common thanatological (a branch of behavioural science that deals with death or how animals perceive death) responses they observed was epimeletic response, body guarding, approach, inspection, visiting tactile (touch with legs and trunks) and vocalisations. The paper also suggested carrying out future studies for better comprehensions of thanantological responses in Asian elephants to decode their response to distress, injuries and death in genetically related and unrelated individuals.

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