Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally posted on September 3, 2012. Enjoy!
Western scrub jays hold what we would call funerals when they encounter a dead member of their species. Teresa Iglesias and colleagues from the University of California at Davis noted that jays, on seeing a dead bird, gather around it; in the journal Animal Behavior, they write that this behavior may have evolved from needing to warn other birds of dangers.
The scientists conducted experiments in which they placed a number of objects into residential yards and observed how the jays reacted. The objects included different colored pieces of wood, dead jays, mounted stuffed jays and great horned owls.
The jays were indifferent to the wood. They gathered together and issued alarm calls on seeing the mounted horned owls, apparently because they thought they were predators. They sometimes mobbed the stuffed jay, a behavior displayed when seeing a competitor or a sick bird.
But their behavior towards the dead birds was the most significant. Not only did the jays issue alarm calls to warn others far away, but they stopped foraging for food for days. As the BBC explains, after finding the dead bird,
The jays then gathered around the dead body, forming large cacophonous aggregations. The calls they made, known as “zeeps”, “scolds” and “zeep-scolds”, encouraged new jays to attend to the dead.
The scientists wrote that just the sight of a dead bird was enough to make the jays seek to share this information to warn other birds of possible dangers, even “without witnessing the struggle and manner of death.”
Jays are not the only animals who scientists have observed taking notice of their dead.
Photo by Eliya
When a member of their herd dies, elephants often guard the bodies. They become agitated and appear to investigate the dead animal, even touching the bones– the skull and tusks — with their trunks and feet in a ceremonial way (as caught on this video).
A few years ago, scientists from the UK and Kenya observed elephants engaged in such behaviors. They were unable to confirm that the elephants visit the bones of their dead relatives in particular. But, as scientists wrote in the journal Biology Letters, “their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range.”
As David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the UK, says in New Scientist:
Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals. The fact they are able to distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising.
Elephants themselves are a matriarchal society filled with aunties and family members who have close bonds within a group.
Therefore, a death in the family “could have an impact on social bonding and structure within the group,” just as it does in human families.
Scientists emphasized that the “notion of elephant graveyards – where old elephants wander off to die – has been exposed as myth by previous studies” and that they are not exactly be “mourning” their dead. But elephants do get excited when they near carcasses as “secretions [stream] from their temples.”
Photo by Xavi Talleda
Like elephants, chimpanzees have large brains, live a long time and also live in complex social groups; they have also been observed mourning their dead for prolonged periods of time.
Chimpanzee mothers have been seen holding dead offspring for weeks. In far southeast of Guinea, scientists observed two mothers carrying their dead offspring for many days — 19 in one case and 68 in another — before abandoning them. Dry-season conditions had resulted in the corpses being, in essence, mummified. As New Scientist notes, “in other accounts of corpse-carrying primates, the body has been snatched out of the mother’s hands by rowdy males, or in wet conditions it has disintegrated within days.”
Even more, the mothers treated the corpses with great care as if they were still alive, grooming them, swatting flies away and producing high-pitched sounds when they accidentally dropped the bodies on the ground.
In another case, after the death of Pansy, an elderly chimp in captivity, her daughter stayed beside her through the night and other chimps cleaned the corpse and the place where she had died.
Photo by Derek Keats
Zoologists have recorded three instances of giraffes, the world’s tallest animals, mourning their dead.
In 2010 in the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, a female giraffe was seen spending four days beside the body of her one-month-old calf. Seventeen other female giraffes also surrounded the body over the four days.
In 2011, a female giraffe in Zambia was seen spending two hours beside a calf who was apparently a stillborn. She splayed her legs to bend down — something giraffes rarely do, except to eat or drink — and licked the calf for several hours. This behavior was repeated for the entire two hours and was all the more notable as giraffes rarely spend time alone.
Also in 2011, a herd of giraffes in Namibia was seen investigating the corpse of a young female giraffe who had died three weeks before. Some of the male giraffes splayed their legs and sniffed the ground.
Scientists are wary of saying that some mammals have a concept of death, while noting that more species than had been thought react when one of their own dies.
But why wouldn’t animals have some response when one of their own dies? Do you think animals conceptualize death?
Photo by darkroomillusions
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Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Flickr