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For humans, the death of a loved one begins a complicated process of grieving and emotional healing that can take years, even a lifetime. For animals, it's unclear exactly what death or grief means, even for species as close to us as chimpanzees. Well, now two studies published in the journal of Current Biology offer a rare and puzzling glimpse into the minds of chimps as they deal with death.
NPR's Deborah Franklin reports.
DEBORAH FRANKLIN: A safari park in central Scotland may seem an unlikely place to plumb the meaning of life and death. But that's where researchers using video cameras caught on tape a moment that is usually private, even for chimps.
Dr. JIM ANDERSON (Psychology Department, University of Stirling): We were able to record what happened on the night that this old chimpanzee female died in the midst of her group.
FRANKLIN: Jim Anderson is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Stirling. He says the old female had lived for decades with three other chimps on a leafy island in the safari park.
Dr. ANDERSON: They would always congregate together in the evening and to sleep in the same general area.
FRANKLIN: And thats where remote cameras caught the deathbed scene. The group's matriarch, Pansy, had been getting weaker and weaker.
Dr. ANDERSON: They were grooming her, they were caressing her, and it just seemed to be a remarkable sign of caregiving.
FRANKLIN: The old chimpanzee's breathing became labored and finally stopped.
Dr. ANDERSON: And what was extraordinary is that they all went down and looked intensely at her face, and that we had never seen that before.
FRANKLIN: The chimps inspected the body, poked at it gently.
Mr. ANDERSON: The adult male especially started to lift Pansy's shoulders and her head, and he was shaking it around. And so this went on for maybe 30 seconds or 40 seconds. And then it seemed to be like the chimpanzees had arrived at a collective decision that something very important had happened.
FRANKLIN: Anderson says for weeks afterward, the chimps remained quite subdued.
Mr. ANDERSON: It might well be that they do have some awareness of death, which is more than what we previously suspected.
Ms. DORA BIRO (Zoologist, Oxford University): It is an interesting question to, you know, ponder the extent to which not just chimps but any species of animal understand death, what sort of concept they have of dying and death.
FRANKLIN: Dora Biro is a zoologist at Oxford. She says there's not much data. Though chimps have been studied for 50 years, they usually die without a human witness. Research has suggested they have empathy for others and have some sense of past and future. They can make a plan, hold a grudge, but death?
Biro herself studies a small colony of wild chimps West Africa.
Ms. BIRO: Sadly, we experienced we were there when a respiratory epidemic broke out in this small community at the end of 2003.
FRANKLIN: The outbreak killed five chimpanzees, including two infants in the night. Next morning, when Biro and her team caught up with the troop, the mothers of the dead chimps did not seem subdued or distressed. They were just going about their business foraging, traveling with the group, but all the while, they carried the limp, decomposing corpses of their infants, and they carried those decaying bodies for a month. But what did that mean?
Ms. BIRO: It's such an obvious question that anybody who sees this will immediately ask, you know: Why on earth did they do this? Don't they understand what happened? And honestly, I don't think we can say. I just don't know what they're thinking.
FRANKLIN: Michael Wilson is a primatologist at the University of Minnesota. He says we should take care not to project human experience onto any other species. Still, he says, even if we can't peer into an animal's mind, there is good evidence that emotion has deep evolutionary roots.
Mr. MICHAEL WILSON (Primatologist, University of Minnesota): Things like grief and a sense of loss and difficulty in understanding that this person is really gone, it seems reasonable to think that these sorts of emotions are shared widely by other animals like chimpanzees and other primates and elephants and probably a whole bunch of other animals.
FRANKLIN: Wilson notes that chimps living in captivity don't have to worry about foraging for food or keeping an eye out for predators. Maybe, he says, they simply have more time to pay attention to what they've lost. Maybe they just have more time to grieve.
Deborah Franklin, NPR News.