There have been many stories about how elephants react to members of their species who have died. For the first time researchers Shifra Goldenberg, Ph.D., from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and George Wittemyer, Ph.D., from Save the Elephants and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University have studied these phenomena.
Elephants clearly show feelings for deceased members of their species even if the dead elephant was not a member of their group. They approached the dead animal, investigated the carcass, and appeared to mourn when it was a relative. Some even visit the carcass repeatedly. Elephants have been observed vocalizing and attempting to lift a fallen elephant that had just died. This study indicates intelligence as well as deep emotions that we need more research to understand.
In a recent study by Fabian Leendertz a veterinarian scientist at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the University of Glasgow, and the Ivorian National Animal Health Institute, found that the chimpanzee population is facing extinction from Anthrax. This is unusual since the disease is typically not found in tropical rain forests, but it has been discovered in the Ivory Coast’s Taï National Park.
Photo Credit: MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ L. Samuni
Anthrax is a spore-forming bacterium, and is more common in the arid regions of Africa which can kill both people and animals. However, in 2004 Leendertz and his team discovered an unknown type of anthrax in dead chimpanzees. Since then they have found the new strain of anthrax (Bacillus cereus biovar anthracis) in other animals such as gorillas and elephants, several monkey species, duikers, mongoose, and a porcupine. They found that 40% of the animal deaths in the Taï National Park were due to anthrax.
While humans have not suffered from this strain of anthrax, there is concern since it is closely related to the strain that does infect humans. Researchers are working together to solve the mystery of the latest anthrax threat to animals and possibly humans. Hopefully they will find a way to contain it and stop the spread of it.
We know that elephants are one of the smartest animals. They are one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror along with great apes, dolphins and magpies. But scientists wanted to know if they recognize their own body in relationship to their environment, known as “body awareness.” Human children cannot do this until they are two years old. To test this, scientists attached a stick to a mat and then had the elephants stand on the mat while asking them to hand the tester the stick. In 42 out of 48 tests, elephants stepped off the mat so that they could pick up the stick to give to the tester. This shows that elephants are aware of their body in relation to their environment.
Why is this important? Animals that show self-recognition demonstrate cooperative problem-solving, perspective taking and empathy. This leads to cooperation in a social environment. Understanding this in animals may help us understand them better and learn how individual animals determine how to help others.
Although many animals have not been tested or have not passed this type of test, it does not mean that they are not capable of self-recognition or body awareness. Many times, the right test has not been developed for that species of animal. Think of the many accounts of animals preforming unusual feats of heroism, helping other animals or humans in life-threatening situations when they have never been trained to do so. It is something to think about and is exciting to think of how much more we have to learn about animals.