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I was just reading this blog on HarperCollins website about 5 animals that grieve. Of elephants, the following claim is made:

They bury their dead and pay tribute to the bodies and to the bones. [my emphasis]

Now, I don't doubt that elephants "pay tribute to the bodies", which I take as mourning, as THIS VIDEO (WARNING: if you are an animal-lover, these two videos may be disturbing to you and THIS VIDEO appear to show some sort of concern over the dead. I am aware of the complex emotional lives of many animals, such as cows experiencing PTSD-like symptoms from wolf attacks, or any number of animals that experience PTSD-esque symptoms. Or, how a mother orca carried around her dead calf for 17 days, and I could go on for awhile here.

My point is that I am not doubting that elephants experience a complex inner-world. What I am questioning is elephants' (or ANY creature's) propensity to cover their dead. I find the suggestion that they "bury" their dead, as doubtful almost to the point of disregarding it entirely (for an elephant to dig a grave large enough for another elephant, or to dig up enough material to cover another elephant to effectively "bury" it would be a tremendous amount of work and truly astounding, indeed). However, it would not be too terribly surprising to find them covering their dead. The question would be, to what extent? For example, is it a single branch or a single scooping of dirt with the trunk by a single member of the herd, or is it a concerted effort by the group to cover the deceased with a good amount of material?

The only place I can find with an apparent expert mentioning this behavior is in a Daily Mail article from 2013. It is a passing mention of the behavior:

According to Charlie Mayhew, of the Tusk Trust, elephants will ‘bury’ their dead, covering carcasses with branches and even taking the tusks to be placed at a different spot.

I can find no other mentions of this behavior, outside similar briefly passing mentions in places such as Quora or Facebook.

So, the PRIMARY question is do any animals bury their dead? The reason I have focused primarily on elephants here is because they are the only species mentioned by my Google searches that exhibit this behavior. SECONDARILY, I would like to know what form these "burials" take; i.e., like I mentioned earlier, how much covering of the deceased is performed, and by how many individuals. ULTIMATELY, someone will find a YouTube video or (even more preferentially, multiple) videos showing the act. Thanks for any help you can give.

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    $\begingroup$ Elephants are very intelligent and they do so. $\endgroup$ May 5, 2023 at 20:21

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Yes.

I was able to find a book1 (see p. 237-239) and a paper2 (I couldn't access this one) suggesting elephants bury their dead and other animals in African elephants (Loxodonta africana). I also found references to a paper/article in the American Psycologist3 that apparently catalogued some reports of these event in the 1980's (see reference 22 in Pinel et al. referenced below, this ref may be the same as ref 2.).

I believe the elephant burying behaviours are simply covering the animal with dirt or other items (leaves etc). How extensively they get covered, I don't know.

However, there are apparently two mammalian species (besides humans) that physically bury their dead. These are the rat4 (Rattus norvegicus) and the mole rat (see pay-walled NY Times link in 5, if you can access either of them) (Heterocephalus glauber). It seems that both species bury their dead in response to release of chemicals related to decomposition.

In the case of the common rat, dead rats of the same species are buried only between 5 and 40 hours post-mortem. In naked mole rats, it seems that the dead are dragged to the latrine/toilet area, which is then subsequently filled in and a new one dug.

Refs:

  1. Douglas-Hamilton, I., Douglas-Hamilton, O. (1977). Among the Elephants. United Kingdom: Collins. (read for free at Archive.org)

  2. Siegel, R. K. (1977). Religious behavior in animals and man: Drug-induced effects. Journal of Drug Issues, 7(3), 219–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/002204267700700302

  3. Siegel RK. The psychology of life after death. Am Psychol. 1980 Oct;35(10):911-31. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.35.10.911. PMID: 7436117.

  4. Pinel JP, Gorzalka BB, Ladak F. Cadaverine and putrescine initiate the burial of dead conspecifics by rats. Physiol Behav. 1981 Nov;27(5):819-24. doi: 10.1016/0031-9384(81)90048-2. PMID: 7323189. Format:

  5. Piel, A., & Stewart, F. (2015). Non-Human Animal Responses towards the Dead and Death: A Comparative Approach to Understanding the Evolution of Human Mortuary Practices. In C. Renfrew, M. Boyd, & I. Morley (Eds.), Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World: 'Death Shall Have No Dominion' (pp. 15-26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316014509.003 (you can see this chapter through google books - do a title search)

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    $\begingroup$ note the mole rats likely evolved the behavior for the same reason ants bury their dead. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 5, 2023 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ Those pages are missing from the first source on Archive. Are you somehow able to see them, or did you read that from a book you actually have? $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2023 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ Also, where did you read that about the naked mole rats dragging their dead to their latrine? I could not find that on the page you listed, or under the "Behavior" tab on that website. It would be interesting considering it says that they get their sent from their latrines, so maybe they stop using a latrine once they dump one in? $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2023 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JimmyG. Here;s the quote from ref 5 on naked mole rats: Mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) show a comparable behaviour, quickly detecting a corpse in their den, before dragging, kicking, or carrying it to the communal latrine. ‘When the latrine is filled they seal it off with an earthen plug, presumably for hygienic reasons, and dig a new one.’1 What the 1 is, I have been unable to determine, can't see any footnotes, doesn't fit ref style in article; may refer to table 2.1 in article but also doesn't fit other table refs. $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Dec 3, 2023 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @JimmyG. I see page 237 in the book linked; I read it on Archive. The linked book does have some problems with the colour plates and the scroll bar, but gets past that once you are past the plates. Exact page link: here $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Dec 3, 2023 at 20:16

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