Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chimpanzees, death and mourning

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Last October, I blogged the touching story of Dorothy, an elderly chimp who passed away at a rescue center from natural causes and was led away to her burial in a wheelbarrow – but not without her “wake” being silently and mournfully witnessed by the other chimps at the center. (If you haven’t seen this story yet, check it out now. That photo is worth a thousand words.)

Recently, scientists were able to catch another glimpse into chimps’ moral sense and recognition of death, in the form of this video footage showing an aging chimp, Pansy, dying peacefully of old age at a British safari park, her ailing body presided over by three other adults until she expired.

Three adult chimpanzees gather around Pansy as she dies peacefully. Video: Anderson et al/Current Biology

Pansy, a female who died of old age at Blair Drummond Safari Park at the end of 2008, was one of four chimpanzees being filmed by Anderson's group. When she became ill, vets paid regular visits to give treatment, while her companions – her daughter, a male and another female – looked on from a distance.

When Pansy lay down in a nest that one of the other apes had made, the rest gathered around her and began grooming and caressing her. Shortly before she died, all three crouched down and inspected her face very closely. They then began to shake her gently. "It is difficult to avoid thinking that they were checking for signs of life," said Anderson.

"After a time, it seemed that the chimpanzees arrived at a collective decision that she had gone. Two left immediately, but one, the other adult female, stayed and held her hand," said Anderson. "That evening, her daughter came back and stayed with her mother all night long. She was trying to sleep, but was clearly very disturbed. All three of them were."

Makes one reflect, doesn’t it?

(via @RichardDawkins)