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Sussex researcher helps BBC to show how elephants “mourn” their dead

Professor Karen McComb and Chris Packham are filmed in Amboseli

What to do with old bones: Do elephants display mourning?

A University of Sussex animal communication researcher joins TV naturalist Chris Packham on BBC Two next week (Tuesday 11 February, 9pm) to help reveal what we understand about animal behaviour.

Professor Karen McComb accompanied Chris to Amboseli National Park in Kenya to describe and demonstrate her research about elephants’ social skills for the final part of Chris’s series ‘Inside the Animal Mind’.

She explains how elephants have a rather unique response to death of their own kind, while she and the film crew watch as a herd of elephants spend time touching three skulls of dead elephants.

Professor McComb said: “It was great to be able to show Chris the unusual interest elephants show in the bones of their own species, recreating some of our earlier experiments on this - and with the technology they used (including a spy camera hidden in a skull) - this should hopefully be one of the highlights.”

Chris comments in the programme: “Watching that group of elephants was a moving experience.

“It's really difficult not to anthropomorphise here and see them as mourning because they arrange themselves in such a reverential way, in a way that we would around a dead relative.

“I suppose we may never know exactly what’s going on in their mind but you can't help but speculate that they have a concept of death.”

The programme also includes Professor McComb showing how elephants can recognise up to a hundred other individuals from their calls.

She said: “We did some playback experiments with the BBC team - showing them how we use this technique to tap into the elephants' vast social knowledge and get at the role of the matriarchs in determining this.

“This is harder to capture on film as it takes years of painstaking experiments before the full picture reveals itself - but hopefully we managed to get the flavour of it across. All in all, it was an adventure!”

The programme also shows Chris swimming with a pod of dolphins in the Bahamas and talking with the scientists who have spent ten years recording and interpreting the sophisticated sounds that dolphins make to try to decipher and decode their language.

And he visits Yerkes Primate Centre in the USA to investigate chimps’ ability to deceive and manipulate others in the group and discover whether they might have a sense of justice.


Notes for editors

University of Sussex Press Office Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, Tel: 01272 678888 Email:

Previous press releases about Professor Karen McComb’s work:

Orphan elephants less socially clued-up decades later, research reveals (30/10/2013)

How female wisdom in old age helps elephants survive (16/03/2011)

Research shows elephants “remember” the dead (26/10/2005)



By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 6 February 2014