Elephant carcasses briefly become busy ecosystems of their own.
This African elephant is on the verge of death. It is likely to have another male elephant swooped next to him during a fight. What happens next shows how important an elephant is to its ecosystem. The elephants came to the scene mourning the loss of their fellow elephant. The non-mourning process involves “body attachment”, in which they climb onto the carcass. They also cause grief by walking backwards toward the body, often touching it with their hind legs. They will explore the body with the torso and forefeet. Whether elephants transmit and learn these actions culturally is part of an ongoing study. The hyena arrived overnight and opened the belly of the corpse, tearing the hardened elephant’s skin. This provides an opportunity for white-backed vultures to feed.
Vultures do not have beaks strong enough to pierce elephant skin, so they have to wait in line behind the hyenas. While sadly, these deaths are crucial to ecosystems. These parties could be the lifesaver of vultures, whose populations have plummeted worldwide due to habitat alteration and poisoning. A leopard arrives to investigate but decides to eat elsewhere. Elephants in a short time become their own busy ecosystem. In addition to scavenging, there is a community full of decomposers like maggots gnawing at anything that larger scavengers don’t reach quickly enough. The carcass is soaked in blood and the fluid secreted during decomposition, creating a fertile soil as microorganisms release nutrients into the soil.
Scientists use carcass counts to monitor the health of elephant populations. So this elephant carcass not only provides a beneficial service to the surrounding ecosystem … but it could ultimately help with the science and conservation of the elephant.