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  • 26 October 2005
  • Research shows elephants “remember” the dead

    Elephants examine animal skulls. Photo: Karen McComb/Royal Society

    Elephants examine animal skulls. Photo: Karen McComb/Royal Society

    Elephants visiting "graveyards" of long-dead relatives may be a myth, but new research suggests that they may, like humans, be able to recognise their own kind among the dead.

    According to University of Sussex psychologist Dr Karen McComb, who studies communication and cognition in mammals, elephants can recognise and interact with the remains of other elephants years after death - a trait that has yet to be found in any other mammal except humans, and which had not been experimentally investigated before.

    Dr McComb's findings, published today (Wednesday 26 October) in the Royal Society's Biology Letters journal, are based on a series of experiments carried out in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Family groups of free-ranging elephants were presented with three sets of objects and their behaviour observed. The first featured an elephant skull, a piece of ivory and a piece of wood; the second an elephant skull, rhino skull and buffalo skull, and the third the skulls of three matriarchal elephants (the matriarch being the oldest female in a family group), each of which was related to a group of study elephants. The findings drawn from Dr McComb's study revealed that:


    • Elephants showed a much stronger interest in ivory than in the other objects, including the elephant skulls;
    • They also showed a stronger preference for elephant skulls over other "non-elephant" objects, including the skulls of other large mammals such as rhinos and buffalo;
    • Elephants showed interest by sniffing then feeling the elephant skulls - and especially the ivory - with the trunk, then gently rolling or stroking with their feet;
    • Elephants did not, however, show greater interest in the skulls of close relatives over those of other elephants.

    The results suggest that elephants recognise and react with the remains of their own species, particularly the ivory tusks. Dr McComb says: "Interest in ivory may be enhanced because of its connection with living elephants, individuals sometimes touching the ivory of others with their trunks during social behaviour. . . It remains possible that where ivory is present alongside skulls, elephants may, through touch or smell, recognise tusks from individuals that they have been familiar with in life."

    The findings do not, however, uphold the idea that elephants can differentiate or show preference for the remains of close relatives above those of other elephants. Dr McComb says: "Reports of elephant graveyards have been exposed as myth. Our results suggest that elephants may not specifically select the skulls of their own relatives for investigation, but their strong interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their own home range."

    The next stage is to see whether such experience can be demonstrated in other mammals, then to look at what drives such behaviour. Dr McComb says: "Why are elephants so intensely interested in the remains of members of their own species, even after many years? That is the interesting question. The answer may relate to how intensely social elephants are, so much so that their interest in others of their kind extends to some time after death."


    Notes for editors 

    For further information, please contact University of Sussex press officers Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678209 or email or


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