Primate mothers who suffer the death of a baby mourn by carrying the corpse with them – several months after the tragedy – an investigation has concluded.
Experts led by University College London (UCL) analyzed data from 409 reports of primate mothers responding to the death of their child, from more than 50 species.
Child-wearing behaviors were observed in 80 percent of the species in the study — most prominently among the great apes and Old World monkeys.
These species are also more likely to carry their dead young for extended periods of time.
While scientists have debated the extent to which primates are aware of death, the findings suggest primate mothers may or may not learn this over time.
Primate mothers who suffer the death of a baby mourn by carrying the corpse with them – several months after the tragedy – an investigation has concluded. Pictured: A mother baboon in Namibia carrying her dead baby
According to Dr. Carter and her team, their study was limited by relying on the unsystematic reporting of death-related behavior in primates.
To address this, they have created an online database – ThanatoBase – in which other researchers can submit their own observations.
The team hopes this provides a more comprehensive picture of how non-human primates deal with death.
According to the researcher’s analysis, whether or not they behaved when carrying baby corpses was strongly determined by the species in question.
Primates like lemurs that diverged evolutionarily long ago don’t carry their dead babies with them — and instead seem to express their grief in other ways, such as by repeatedly returning to the corpse or calling out for their child.
The team also found that younger mothers were more likely to carry their babies after death — and that carrying behaviors were more common in the wake of non-traumatic causes of death such as illness than traumatic ones such as accidents or infanticide.
Finally, it appears that the time that the mothers carry their child is related to the strength of the bond between mother and child.
In particular, babies were carried longer when they died at a younger age, with a sharp decline when they reached about half of weaning age.
“Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in the same way that humans do,” said the article’s author and UCL anthropologist Alecia Carter.
“It may take experience to understand that death results in a prolonged ‘cessation of functioning’, which is one of the concepts of death that people have.
“What we don’t know, and may never know, is whether primates understand that death is universal—that all animals, including themselves, will die.”
“Our study also has implications for what we know about how grief is processed in non-human primates,” continued Dr. Carter.
“Human mothers who experience a stillbirth and are able to hold their babies are known to be less likely to develop major depression because they get the chance to express their bond.”
“Some primate mothers may also need the same amount of time to process their loss, demonstrating how strong and important the maternal bonds are for primates and mammals in general,” she concluded.
Experts led by University College London (UCL) analyzed data from 409 reports of primate mothers responding to the death of their child, from more than 50 species. Pictured: In a previous study, Dr Carter and colleagues spent 13 years tracking and observing a troop of Namibian chacma baboons, during which time they witnessed 12 cases of mothers carrying their dead cubs — including a miscarriage and two stillbirths – one of which is depicted
“We show that mothers who had a stronger bond with their child at death carry the corpse longer, with emotions possibly playing an important role,” said author and anthropologist Elisa Fernández Fueyo, also of UCL.
“However, our research also shows that primate mothers can gain a better awareness of death through experience of death and external cues.”
This, she explained, can lead them to “decide” not to carry their dead child with them, even though they may still be experiencing loss-related emotions.”
‘We found that bonds, especially the mother-infant bond, may stimulate primate response to death.
“Because of our shared evolutionary history, human social bonds are in many ways similar to those of non-human primates. Therefore, it is likely that human mortuary practices and grief have their origin in social ties.
‘The Thanatologic’ [death related] behaviors we see in non-human primates today may have been present in early human species as well — and they may have been transformed in the various rituals and practices during human evolution.
“We need more data to further develop our understanding of this and to what extent primate behavior towards death can be explained not only by bonds, but also by the associated emotions and thus resemble human grief.”
The study’s full findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
HOW THOSE ANIMALS AGE FOR THEIR KILLS
Several species have been seen mourning their deceased relatives and in some cases displaying human-like behavior after a companion has passed away.
elephantsFor example, they have been known to visit and smell dead companions, touch them with their trunks, and repeatedly look for a deceased member of their group.
This vervet monkey in a game reserve in South Africa was seen carrying and nursing her stillborn baby’s body for 10 days after it died, after which it had stiffened and started to rot
chimpanzeesWhen confronted with a dead body in their group, they have been seen gathering around the corpse and cleaning or tending the dead body. They may also refuse to visit the place where that monkey died for a few days afterward. Chimpanzees are also thought to have a lifetime of mourning the loss of their mother, with orphans being less sociable and less active than others.
magpies have been seen burying the bodies of their dead under twigs and also lovingly pecking the dead body, in what scientists described as a “magpie burial.”
peccary, a type of wild pig in the US, has been seen visiting their dead relatives and sniffing and sleeping next to them.
Whales and Dolphins They are also known to mourn their dead relatives and scientists have seen in the past that the mothers support or carry their dead young around and try to keep them afloat so predators don’t eat them.
Source: Smithonian Magazine