Grieving Monkey Mourns His Mate

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 25, 2016 2:48 pm

Mourning a fallen group member. (Credit: Bin Yang, James R. Anderson, and Bao-Guo Li/ Current Biology 26)

For animal researchers, one of the most essential questions is that of consciousness. How do they view themselves and those around them? Even in humans, consciousness remains a perplexing problem for scientists — made all the more vexing because the answer is locked in our own brains.

One way for researchers to gain insight into how other animals view their lives is by observing their behavior when confronted with death. There is a good deal of evidence that various species of animals recognize and react to the deaths of one of their group members. Elephants, gorillas, dolphins and even magpies seem to mourn the loss of those close to them. Getting to view one of these somber rituals is rare, however, as most animals don’t grieve for very long, and in the wild, bodies are soon claimed by predators.

Death and Loss

A group of researchers in China got a chance to not only glimpse the aftermath of a loss, but the events leading up to it as well. It’s an event that they say provides important insights into animals’ conception of death and loss.

As New Scientist reports, the researchers had been observing a group of snub-nosed monkeys in Southeast Asia, when a female, mated to the group’s leader, began to show symptoms of noticeable distress, appearing weak and isolated. Her mate picked up on this as well, and began caring for her with unusual attentiveness, hovering around his mate and stroking her gently. About an hour after climbing a tree, the female fell to the ground where she passed away some 50 minutes later. All the while, her mate sat silently by her side, still tending to her.

After the female had died, the male monkey remained by her side for another five minutes before appearing to accept the reality of the situation. He moved away with the rest of the group, although he seemed noticeably reluctant, and gazed back toward his mate’s final resting place on several occasions. Though the researchers buried the body, he returned the next day to hover over the place where she died. The researchers published their observations Monday in the journal Current Biology.


(Credit: Bin Yang, James R. Anderson, and Bao-Guo Li/ Current Biology 26)

A Time to Grieve

Grieving rituals are not new in the animal kingdom, although this is the first time such behavior has been observed in snub-nosed monkeys.

Previous studies of snub-nosed monkeys had focused only on how mothers responded to dead infants. One key finding in studies of primates’ responses to death, as it relates to consciousness, is the recognition that life and death are separate. The fact that the male snub-nosed monkey seemed to mark his mates death with expressions of tenderness, while also eventually walking away, indicated both a level of response to death and, possibly, a realization of its finality.

This has important ramifications for understanding how animals perceive life — it shows that some species likely have an innate understanding of when life is present and when it is not.

Observing the behavior of the other monkeys both before and after her death revealed information about the monkeys’ social structure as well. In social animals such as monkeys, building and reinforcing bonds between community members is crucial to the group’s survival. Marking the death of a group member may serve to maintain social solidarity between other group members and uphold notions of caring and support.


(Credit: Bin Yang, James R. Anderson, and Bao-Guo Li/ Current Biology 26)

In other groups of primates, such as chimpanzees and macaques, surviving group members engage in more grooming after the death of one of their kin, the friendly activity likely serves to compensate for the tragedy of losing one of their own. This not only strengthens group dynamics, it also speaks to the emotional impact of losing a close group member — research has shown that death can elicit both rage and compassion in primates, as well as elevate stress levels.

Humans have developed a wide range of responses to death that differ from culture to culture, but all serve the same purpose: to lend meaning to life. By honoring those who have passed away, we better our own lives through the reaffirmation of community. While we can never, and should never, apply our own values to those of animals, it appears that death holds a special significance for them as well, revealed by both the expression of personal grief and the public reaffirmation of life.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

    Well, what a surprise. Who would have thought? And these ppl earn their keep finding out what everyone knows? Sweet.


    and dont give me that pablum about not applying our values to them… dont give me that crap… it is very convenient not to isn’t??


    and the rituals of ALL societies, past and present, DO NOT serve the same purpose, to lend meaning to life. BS. You are trying to make the point we are oh so special… so sensitive… so elevated.. bs we are not, we are the contrary.. but what is the use of talking to you, hired per article, to spout empty and worn down platitudes…Shame!

  • Caesar FM Chavez

    As can be seen in the behavior of Washoe, a female chimpanzee — she understood when her caretaker Kat lost her baby and was absent for a time. The chimp signed that she understood her human caretaker’s pain when she lost had her child. Info at Wikipedia – Chimpanzee Washoe.

  • Caesar FM Chavez

    On the other hand, a related Wikipedia article on Great Ape Language is ambiguous and does not conclusively confirm that apes have what we humans would call “language”.

  • Caesar FM Chavez

    And lastly there is the Wikipedia article on another primate — Koko Gorilla — who may have also possibly demonstrated some measure of understanding of the world and language; Koko has even adopted kittens, all of whom she named herself, and seemed to understand and mourn the death of her first cat.

  • Mikaël Malka

    I believe that why scientists are still puzzled by consciousness is that in not only exists within our mind but all around us as well, they have already determined that they is a flied of energy that links all living beings and the planet as well, it is a certainty that we only can perceive our world and interpret it with the depth within us as that grows deeper we are able to contribute that to an evolving consciousness, within which animals are not excluded. The issue with the scientific community is that it is very specialized and therefore divided into different areas whereas one scientist will not necessarily be able to interpret or even be aware the findings of one in a simmilar but diconnected field, whereas there is a theory of oneness, this is the way of nature and no, not the opposite


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