4 Animals That Mourn Their Dead
Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally posted on September 3, 2012. Enjoy!
1. Western scrub jays
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. Based on their study published in “Animal Behavior,” the researchers conclude that this behavior may have evolved from a need 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, but they gathered together and issued alarm calls on seeing the mounted horned owls — apparently they perceived them as predators. They sometimes mobbed the stuffed jay, a behavior displayed when encountering 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 also 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 noted that just the sight of a dead bird was enough to make the jays warn other birds of possible dangers, even “without witnessing the struggle and manner of death.”
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 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, told the 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 “mourning” their dead. But elephants do get excited when they approach carcasses as “secretions [stream] from their temples.”
Like elephants, chimpanzees have large brains, live a long time and live in complex social groups. They have also been observed mourning their dead for prolonged periods of time.
Chimpanzee mothers have been known to hold dead offspring for weeks. In southeast 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 mummified the corpses. 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.”
The chimpanzee 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. Other chimps cleaned the corpse, as well as the place where she had died.
Zoologists have recorded three instances of giraffes, the world’s tallest animal, mourning their dead.
In 2010 in Kenya’s Soysambu Conservancy, a female giraffe was observed 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 spent two hours beside a stillborn calf. 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 — all the more notable, as giraffes rarely spend time alone.
Also in 2011, a herd of giraffes in Namibia was observed investigating the corpse of a young female giraffe that 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 expected seem to react when one of their own dies.
But why wouldn’t animals have some response to death? Do you think animals conceptualize death?
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Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife/Flickr