Do Chimpanzees Understand Death?

Scientists have studied chimpanzees and other primates in captivity when long-time companions died. In Scientific American, Katherine Harmon examines the tentative answers of scientists to this question:

Another paper appearing in the same issue of Current Biology describes two mother chimpanzees carrying their dead infants in the Bossou colony in Guinea. Although this behavior has been observed in chimps and other primates before, the researchers, led by Dora Biro, a research fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, documented the carrying behavior for 68 days in one of the instances—far longer than had been previously described.

Of note, Biro's group reported, is that documented deaths of infants in that particular colony (of which there were three) always resulted in "extended carrying," though it is not universal that mothers carry infant corpses for weeks—or months—after death. This difference "raises questions about the potential role of observational learning in promoting chimpanzee mothers' prolonged transport of deceased young," Biro and colleagues wrote.

These differences in handling death might also be a part of demonstrated cultural differences among chimpanzee groups, Anderson says.


Link | Image: NIH

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We take a big risk when we try to ascribe motives or understanding to other animals.
But the story is touching, none-the-less.

An interesting exploration of the topic can be found here.

http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2010/04/02
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"Understanding" is hard to define in another species. We had two dogs that lived together for about 10 years. When the one died, the immediate and short-term behavior of the other was dramatic. When we buried the dog, we made an effort to keep the other from watching because we thought maybe he'd try to dig his buddy up or something. He whined the entire time we were outside and eventually found his way into the attic to peer out the attic window. For about two weeks after, he laid down and slept on the spot were we buried his friend and for some reason, gathered sticks and chew toys and balls on the site.
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