Do chimpanzees truly understand the concept of death–and do they grieve for their dead? Two separate studies due to be published in journal Current Biology suggest that chimps may have emotional responses to death that aren’t so different from humans’ reactions.
In the first study, researchers observed an ailing female chimp in a Scottish zoo. The elderly chimp, called Pansy, was believed to be more than 50 years old. As Pansy’s health began to falter, other chimps, including Pansy’s daughter, began to exhibit signs of concern that seemed remarkably human. They groomed Pansy more often than usual as she became lethargic, and after her death, her daughter stayed near the body for an entire night, even though she had never slept on that platform before. All of the group were subdued for several days afterwards, and avoided the place where she had died, spending long hours grooming each other [BBC].
In the second study, scientists working in the forests of Guinea observed two chimp mothers carrying around the bodies of their dead infants for weeks after their deaths. One chimp carried her dead baby around for more than 60 days, an unusually long period, according to the scientists. During the period, the babies’ bodies slowly mummified as they dried out. The bereaved mothers used tools to fend off flies [BBC].
For an in-depth examination of what these two studies reveal about our closest ancestor’s understanding of death and mortality, read Ed Yong’s post in the DISCOVER blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science.”
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