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.”

2. Elephants


Photo Credit: Casey Allen/Unsplash

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.”

3. Chimpanzees


Photo Credit: Will Keightley/Flickr

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.

4. Giraffes


Photo Credit: Guy Roberts/Unsplash

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


W. C
W. C8 months ago

Thank you.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill10 months ago

So sad to see them grieving.

Lisa Hofmann
Lisa H11 months ago

I think that animals not only grieve for their animal friends and family, but also for their human family. One of my cats, Lili, was absolutely despondent after my grandmother died (she lived on the house with me). The cat had spent most afternoons napping on Grandma's lap and of course couldn't understand why she suddenly wasn't there. Lili would go around the house crying for what seemed like hours at a time. She cried on and off for quite a few months before I finally had enough and took her to the vet. (I was concerned that I was overlooking something wrong with her.) The vet conceded that Lili was, indeed, grieving for my grandmother. Poor kitty! :-(

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Kristal Marks
Kristal Mabout a year ago

Very touching.....thank u

Nena C.
Nena Cabout a year ago

yes they do how sad when they lose their own

Nila Perez
Nila Perezabout a year ago

I had 2 dogs who had lived with me for about 7 years. Brandy was about 8 years old and was pining at losing his buddy (another dog I had had previously who died of heart problems). So I adopted Mickey (a Chihuahua mix) as a puppy and he and Brandy bonded quite well. At age 15, Brandy started having seizures late one night and it was Mickey who came to wake me to alert me about it. I called a pet taxi service to help me get Brandy (who was a large dog and weighed 40 pounds) to the vet and as we wheeled Brandy out the door, Mickey started howling at the top of his lungs (very loudly for such a small dog) and I had NEVER heard him howl ever in all the years I had had him. It actually caused us to pause and stare at him. He continued howling even after I locked the door and left with Brandy (who sadly did not survive). Mickey seemed to know that he was not going to see his friend again and was maybe saying farewell to Brandy as we left. I have never forgotten that awful sound he made to this day. I adopted an orphaned kitten shortly afterward, but Mickey spent several weeks in a seeming state of despondency that I felt was him missing his friend. So yes, I am fully convinced that animals do mourn.

Nequiel D.
Nequiel Dabout a year ago

When my 'best friend' of 18 years (my dog) died in the back garden of a heart attack one summer day The dog in the house away across the field started to howl mournfully (they were friends) and didn't stop until she had been taken away...The howler was sat facing directly towards us and was up wind at the time (even his owner could not move him or get him to stop as she told me later!

Edo R.
Edo Rabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing!

Elisabeth I.
Elisabeth Iabout a year ago

Animals don't spend time over naming their feelings (as we do), they just feel. We - human beings - can call it grief, sadness or loneliness, but aminals don't call it anyhow, they just let themselves TO FEEL and they don't avoid it, it's a nature and they don't fight it. We can learn so much from them...