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Biol Lett. 2006 Mar 22;2(1):26-8.

African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species.

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School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK.


An important area of biology involves investigating the origins in animals of traits that are thought of as uniquely human. One way that humans appear unique is in the importance they attach to the dead bodies of other humans, particularly those of their close kin, and the rituals that they have developed for burying them. In contrast, most animals appear to show only limited interest in the carcasses or associated remains of dead individuals of their own species. African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are unusual in that they not only give dramatic reactions to the dead bodies of other elephants, but are also reported to systematically investigate elephant bones and tusks that they encounter, and it has sometimes been suggested that they visit the bones of relatives. Here, we use systematic presentations of object arrays to demonstrate that African elephants show higher levels of interest in elephant skulls and ivory than in natural objects or the skulls of other large terrestrial mammals. However, they do not appear to specifically select the skulls of their own relatives for investigation so that visits to dead relatives probably result from a more general attraction to elephant remains.

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