Dust to dust

March 2, 2011 • 12:06 pm

New Scientist presented this striking time-lapse video of a dead African elephant (Loxodonta africana) being dismantled in Kenya.  It took just a week for scavengers to reduce the corpse to a pile of bleaching bones.  This was part of a Channel 4 program, “The Elephant: Life After Death,” that aired in the UK on February 16.

New Scientist also notes that “There are an estimated 6 million calories in an elephant—enough energy to keep a human sated for over eight years.”  (I calculate 6.6 years at 2500 calories per day.)

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Of course, this is going to happen to all of us who aren’t cremated, but it’ll take place decently out of sight, and will involve insect larvae and bacteria rather than jackals, hyenas, and leopards.

h/t:  Chris Noto

39 thoughts on “Dust to dust

  1. Two things: first, this makes me really glad Smell-o-vision still isn’t a reality and second, this video is also a good demonstration of why fossils are so rare. Most land animals will be similarly dismantled and in a short time even their bones will be completely broken down. Most life is completely reabsorbed by other life, leaving no trace behind.

  2. I saw the full version on Channel 4. This extract misses out the best bit: the first hyena to take a bite dives head-first into the elephant’s anus, only to be ejected after a moment by an eruption of gases!

  3. Go maggots! In fact, the programme was a bit of a let-down from a Big Animal p.o.v. What really reduced the poor old elephant to bone was the activities of millions and millions of maggots, which are not terribly televisual. They didn’t tell us much about the beetles that were eating the hide. But what was good was the emphasis on what happened to the maggots (they got eaten by other stuff) and how all the energy that had been stored up by the elephant got converted into maggots which in turn got converted into birds, mammals etc etc. Nothing was wasted…

      1. Yes, it was a civet.

        There is a official version on YouTube (don’t know whether there are any regional restrictions)

      2. That rabbit vid was super, but if anything ever cried out for an explanatory caption…! At least for an idea of the time frame!

  4. I’m sure we’re all familiar with that wonderful Sagan line about us all being made of starstuff.

    But it’s just as important to recognize that some of the atoms that make up you were, not that long ago, part of nearly every kind of organism you care to name. That oxygen atom in the drop of sweat at the tip of your finger was once part of a celery stalk; the one hydrogen atom it’s paired with spent some time as part of a sabretooth; and the other hydrogen atom was part of a trilobite in a past life.

    Millions of years from now, all the atoms that are currently part of your body will each be minuscule fractions of the bodies of innumerable organisms of species not yet even dreamt of.

    Not only are we starstuff, we are lifestuff. It’s an unimaginably powerful chain, and we are but the most insignificant of links on an almost-forgettable tiny strand of the chain. But we are part of that chain, nonetheless; as Dawkins observed, that makes us the lucky ones.



  5. I recall reading a few years ago (sorry, I don’t have a citation) that a single blue whale carcass spawns a seafloor oasis ecosystem that can last decades.

    1. Scientific American ran such an article sometime in the past 2 years or so. Sorry I cant cite the month.

    2. Another interesting whale related thing was a few years back some people towed a dead whale that was beached out to a great white shark area to see what would happen. The sharks proceeded to eat almost the whole whale.


      There are also whole species of worms that just live off of fallen whale bones.

    3. And then there was the interesting case of the exploding whale when the Oregon Highway Division was not willing to wait for nature to take it’s course:

  6. “There are an estimated 6 million calories in an elephant—enough energy to keep a human sated for over eight years.”

    MOM! Elephant stew AGAIN!

    1. Jeffrey, you may want to get the recipe by Alexandre Dumas, you can get it here. Just for the foots.
      That will change you from stew.

      Wonder if it’s possible to accomodate it with Guinness…
      I’ll get just the Guinness for the moment.

      1. Dumas would scoff at the very idea of drinking beer, rather than wine, with food, and would probably assume you were English.

        1. Well, I’m greek and I never made it to be a wine lover and this is a big problem if you live in Bordeaux as I do.

          Fortunately there are some quite descent pubs.

  7. That is horrible. I just have an uneasy feeling that the elephant is alive and yelling- to no avail of course. But of course it was (and for sure is) not alive.

    Nature,Nature, how you disgust and fascinate me.

  8. A while back, we had a wonderful book out of the library titled simply のにっき–Field Diary. It’s in Japanese, but since there is really no writing in it other than what the bugs are saying, you could profitably “read” it whether you know any Japanese or not. It documents with fantastically detailed drawings the death and breakdown of a weasel, whom we see dead on the ground with the distraught youngster in the background. Each subsequent page shows the carcass further broken down and *all* the different bugs who have come to the feast. The final page shows the same field richer with flowers and grasses and more abundant bird and mammal life because the field can support it. It was a breathtakingly beautiful way to talk about death with my kids–that it need not be scary, that there is beauty in the other end of the cycle as well.

  9. “There are an estimated 6 million calories in an elephant—enough energy to keep a human sated for over eight years.”

    No wonder I’m not losing any weight. No more chicken fried elephant for breakfast!

  10. I’m pretty sure that ellie smelt ripe, but nothing so far has beaten the solid miasma around a week long dead hippo marinading in the Zambezi. It was like a sudden wall of filth and as the wind was gusting I suddenly found myself deep within the stink, at first still keen to get closer to see the crocs actively pulling the hippos apart, but then I was desperate to get out, far far away. The flies – literally a roar as they rose and fell, the mat of maggots in the mud and juices around the rear end of the corpse. Very nearly a Seamus Heaney moment – ‘Death of a Naturalist’; I am not squeamish but I was when faced with that, it was one of the few times I have been horrified and disgusted to the point of nausea with anything in nature. I’m over it now of course 🙂

  11. I noticed that the hyenas seemed to return nightly to feed. I wonder if it was the same pack and if they defended the carcass. This elephant certainly kept them fed for a while.

    The leopard scavenging was certainly an eye opener. Is scavenging documented in leopards? All the wild-life films I’ve seen have leopards dragging their kills up trees for later consumption.

    1. IANAS (I Am Not A Scientist) but leopards are a particular area of interest to me (because, KITTY!) so I’ll try to answer your question.

      The short answer is yes, leopards are scavengers as well as hunters, although they are often beaten to a carcass by the tougher lions and hyaenas.

      Leopards generally are opportunistic and have a much larger range of prey than other big cats. They are also accustomed to eating meat that’s a little off, as an impala carcass stashed in a tree may last the cat several days by which time it would certainly hum a bit, so a manky elephant would probably be a treat for it.

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