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Airdate: Apr 28, 1999
Scientist: Katy Payne


Is there any truth to the legend that elephants bury the bones of their dead?

In the first century AD, the Roman chronicler Pliny reported that elephants collect and bury the bones of their dead. Over the years, many nature writers have remarked on elephants' reactions to the deaths of their kin and companions. But what really happens when an elephant dies? I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.

We're listening to the sounds of elephants in Africa.

"There are legends about elephants creating graveyards of the bones of other elephants. I believe this is just a legend. I have never seen it."

Katy Payne is author of Silent Thunder: In The Presence of Elephants.

"What I have seen though is that whenever an elephant comes to the bones of another elephant, it will stop and sniff and touch and roll over and fondle and carry and move and displace and pick up again and again those bones. And particularly tusks. Whether there's individual recognition of the source of the bones I don't know, but the bones are very interesting to other elephants. How they respond when other animals die is with obvious symptoms of grief, despair and distress initially. They are called back and back to explore the corpse, called back by their own desires to return. And eventually when they leave the corpse there is obvious evidence of grieving. A female having lost a calf stayed with the herd which accompanied her near to standing next to the corpse for several days and left reluctantly with a herd and then fifty kilometers away, turned back and went back to the calf. So there's all this kind of memory and grief.

Additional funding for Pulse of the Planet has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.