Chimps ‘mourn their dead,’ studies find

April 27, 2010

The top rung of the ladder of creation is within the hairy reach of the chimpanzee, two new studies suggest.  Scientists working independently in Scotland and Guinea will publish observations in Current Biology that suggest the apes mourn their loved ones when the Chimp Reaper calls.

Staff at Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, UK, used video to observe the passing of Pansy, a 50-year-old captive chimpanzee. 

As she ebbed away over the course of a few days, her troop became subdued, and held grooming vigils as she lay stricken.  When she had died, her daughter stayed by her side for an entire night, despite never having used that sleeping platform before. Later, the chimps cleaned Pansy’s corpse, and subsequently avoided the place of her death.

Dr James Anderson, of The University of Stirling, who used the footage in his study, suggests these may be funerary “rituals” of some rudimentary sort.

“Our … research makes a strong case that chimps not only understand the concept of death but also have ways with which they cope with it,” Anderson told New Scientist.

Also found in Current Biology is the work of Oxford University’s Dora Biro et al., who observed chimpanzees in Bossou district, Guinea, carrying the mummified corpses of their offspring for weeks after their deaths. The mothers eventually relinquished their dead, a decision which Biro thinks is linked to fertility cycles.

“The hormonal changes the chimps experience as their bodies gear up to reproduce may push them into ‘letting go’ of the corpses,” she told New Scientist. “We don’t know that for sure, but our observations suggest that may be true.”

Anderson thinks the chimpanzees’ behaviour further blurs the already-indistinct boundary between humans and the balance of creation.

“Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation, and self-awareness, for example. But science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think.

“The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon.”

The studies bring academic rigour to anecdotal observations published by The Times last October. Apes at the Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in Cameroon maintained a respectful silence as they watched the funeral cortège of Dorothy.

Mange-crazed wombat attacks Victoria bushfire survivor

April 12, 2010

A survivor of Australia’s deadly bushfires was set upon and dragged to the ground by a crazed wombat, ABC news reports.

Bruce Kringle, 60, who was made homeless by the “Black Saturday” blazes, was living in a caravan whilst awaiting the completion of his new, permament home, when the maniacal marsupial attacked.

Kringle inadvertantly trod on the hairy-nosed beast when leaving his caravan. The wombat “proceeded to get rather nasty,” in the words of the attending paramedic, and subjected Kringle to a 20 minute ordeal, gnawing his leg, upper arm, and chest.

Kelly Smith, a friend of Kringle, told AAP: “Bruce managed to find an axe and kill it.”

Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Geoff McClure speculated that the creature may have been suffering from mange. “In the advanced stages wombats become very irritable and anyone who approaches them, they usually view as a threat and may run towards them,” he said.

In this light, the killing of the mangy marsupial may have been merciful, despite Battling Bruce’s unconventional choice of instrument.

BBC News has some handy wombat facts, which include skill in producing cube-shaped droppings.

Pig transporter overturns on motorway

April 12, 2010

A pig transporter has overturned on the M4 motorway in Wiltshire, UK, BBC News reports.

Dozens of porkers were spilled from the double-decker trailer. Thirteen swine are confirmed dead, and vets are treating an unspecified number of injured.

A spokesman for Wiltshire Police told the BBC: “The remainder have been recovered into a second transporter.”

But a Highways Agency spokesman appeared to contradict the Police’s claim, saying the emergency services were merely “doing their best to round them up”.

Motorists are advised to avoid the area, between Junctions 17 (Chippenham) and 18 (Bath), or to bring plentiful supplies of white bread and brown sauce.

Whether a media frenzy similar to that which greeted the Tamworth Two‘s escape remains to be seen.