In 2007, photographer John Chaney was traveling in Botswana and came across the desiccated corpse of an adult female elephant. Vultures and jackals were already busy consuming the corpse when he heard the heavy footsteps of another elephant approaching.
The female adult elephant arrived at the scene and chased away the predators. Then, she wrapped her trunk tenderly around the corpse’s tusk. She stayed in that position for hours, grieving over her lost friend and guarding her body.
Other species might scavenge their own dead for food, but animals that exhibit grief seem to show respect and reverence for the bodies of their loved ones.
“Elephants have rituals that have been documented for a long time, where if a member of their family dies, they will set up a real burial ground,” Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, wildlife ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told LifeZette. “They will essentially perform a funeral ceremony where there’s visitation by other family members. Elephants have been shown to shed tears, to actually cry over death, and there is a lot of documented behavior [in which they’re] really very obviously grieving the way humans would.”
Wynn-Grant said behavioral psychology as it applies to animals is fairly new science, but that experts have seen clear demonstrations of grief among large-brained mammals such as elephants, whales, and large primates like gorillas and chimpanzees.
Although many of these animals do not live in monogamous relationships with specific mates, they often live in tight-knit familial communities that include siblings and generations of parents and children. When a member of their clan dies — either an elder from old age, or another family member — the other members of that family will grieve in ways that are noticeably different from the death of animals outside their family unit.
They demonstrate their grief through “a lot of interaction with the body,” said Wynn-Grant. “It’s a lot of staying near the body, touching the body, and returning to the body over and over in a very deliberate way.”
Whales, for example, will circle the body of the deceased animal at the surface of the water, which is an area where they would not normally spend a lot of time. Dolphin parents have been known to keep the bodies of their dead children afloat for days after death.
In the pilot episode of the nature show “Spy in the Wild,” a group of researchers built a replica of a langur monkey infant, and placed it in the middle of a family of monkeys. One female monkey adopted the robot but then accidentally dropped it from a precarious height. The whole monkey family huddled silent and subdued around the body, stroking it and smelling it. Some adults even hugged their own babies tighter.
While other species might scavenge their own dead for food, the animals that exhibit grief seem to show respect and reverence for the bodies of their loved ones.
These demonstrations of grief often last as long as the body remains intact, Wynn-Grant explained. For elephants, this could mean as much as a week or even two of mourning. In ocean systems, sharks and carnivorous whales often scavenge the carcasses of dead whales fairly quickly — so demonstrations of grief may not last as long.
Because these animals experience real grief, Wynn-Grant said, practices like poaching can dramatically tear apart their communities. Central Africa has lost more than 64 percent of its elephants in the last decade due to poaching. These hunters target the largest animals in the herd — often the matriarch, who provides a social glue for the rest of the animals in the pack.
The youngest offspring are unable to function without their mothers and perish as a result. Many times, the solidarity that kept the herd together previously dissolves after important matriarchs and other elephant leaders die.
Although these animals clearly feel grief differently than humans do, there are some similarities among the species. They seem to demonstrate a heightened awareness of death and an appreciation for the lives of their family members and friends.
At the root of their grief, these animals seem to demonstrate that they can bond deeply with others in significant, meaningful ways.