for National Geographic News
Most animals display little regard for their dead. Lions, for example, may simply sniff or lick a dead relative before eating or ignoring them.
Elephants, on the other hand, have been reported to "become excited and agitated if they come across a dead elephant," said Karen McComb, an expert on animal communication and cognition at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.
The mammals investigate remains with their feet and trunks, paying special attention to the skulls and tusks of even long-dead elephants. But the behavior has never been studied systematically.
Some experts have argued that elephants' interest in remains of their own kind could simply be a response to novel and unusual objects.
To test the idea, McComb and colleagues with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Nairobi, Kenya, presented skulls and other objects to 19 groups of wild elephants.
The team found that the animals prefer to investigate elephant bones and tusks and can even distinguish elephant skulls from those of other species.
"This is a very important field study on questions that previously had only been answered using anecdotes and chance observations," said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist and expert on animal emotions at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was not involved in the study.
One experiment tested whether the plant-eaters showed more interest in elephant skulls than other objects, such as ivory or pieces of wood.
A second tested the animals' response to an elephant skull, compared to a buffalo and a rhino skull.
A third experiment tested elephant groups that had lost their matriarch in the recent past, comparing their response to her skull and those of two unrelated matriarchs.
McComb and her co-workers drove out to groups of elephants in the park and placed the objects a hundred feet (30 meters) away from the animals.
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