Chimps ‘mourn their dead,’ studies find

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.

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