Link: Carl Safina on animal grief

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An evocative excerpt from the new book by Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel:

A researcher once played a recording of an elephant who had died. The sound was coming from a speaker hidden in a thicket. The family went wild calling, looking all around. The dead elephant’s daughter called for days afterward. The researchers never again did such a thing.

Also, this on elephant burial:

Elephants sometimes cover dead elephants with soil and vegetation, making them, as far as I’m aware, the only other animals who sometimes perform simple burials. Elephants have done the same when humans are involved on several recorded occasions. When sport hunters shot a large male elephant his companions surrounded his carcass. The hunters returned hours later to find that the others had not only covered their dead comrade with soil and leaves—they had covered his large head-wound with mud.

If I can editorialize for a moment, sometimes I cannot believe that archaeologists argue about whether Neandertals could conceive of death, or whether they ever really buried the dead. Burial is not universal among historic human groups, but all cultures have some kind of special treatment of dead bodies. We do not know how deep in our family tree these kinds of cultural behaviors may go, but the evidence from chimpanzees (also discussed by Safina) suggests that whatever cognitive resources are employed in recognizing death and grieving were well in place long before the origin of the hominins. I think that such behaviors are emergent qualities of long-lived social beings.

We don’t yet fully understand the scope of these kinds of behaviors in other animals, like elephants. It seems far-fetched to think that we will ever find paleontological traces of elephant mortuary behaviors in the past. Why not mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres? In elephants, in primates, in cetaceans, these behaviors may have originated before the Miocene.