Chimpanzees were previously thought to process death in a detached, animalistic fashion. But new evidence shows the animals mourn death much like humans do, revealing an awareness of death that is much more developed than previously thought. Discovery News reports on two recently published studies showing the details of how chimps process the death of companions and offspring. 

Biologists cite the example of Pansy, a 50-year -old chimp held in captivity at the Blair Drummond Safari Park in Stirling, Scotland. Researchers studied how the three other chimps in Pansy’s enclosure reacted when Pansy died of natural causes. Their behavior was decidedly changed from normal patterns. As the study’s lead author James Anderson told Discovery News, "In the days before Pansy died, the others were notably attentive towards her, and they even altered their routine sleeping arrangements to remain by her, by sleeping on the floor in a room where they don't usually sleep." 

As Pansy died, the other three chimps studied her face and shook her by the shoulders. After she passed away, a chimp named Chippy pounded on her torso. Researchers believed this was to determine how and if Pansy would react. In the end, Chippy sat quietly by Pansy’s side, carefully removing straw from her face.

Another test showed chimp mothers reacted in a similar mournful fashion when their infants died of natural causes. Researchers from the University of Oxford watched a semi-isolated chimpanzee community that researchers had been studying for over three decades in the forests surrounding Bossou, Guinea. After their infants died, chimpanzee mothers Jire and Vuavua still carried and groomed their babies for up to 68 days. They only abandoned the bodies after researchers noted an extreme smell of decay.

Dora Biro is part of the University of Oxford study. As she told Discovery News, "Certainly in humans, the loss of loved ones is an immensely painful experience, and the loss of a child perhaps almost inconceivably so. We probably experience feelings of a 'refusal to let go' even if we don't act on it in the same way as these mothers did." Biro points out that people often hold onto inanimate objects after a person’s death, simply because they remind them of the deceased.

Researchers hope their findings may help chimps in captivity deal with death in a more productive manner. Now, elderly or terminally ill chimpanzees are removed from their groups before they die. Ultimately, allowing them to remain in their normal habitat may be considered the most humane action of all.

For further reading:

New evidence shows chimps face death like humans
Chimps hold deathbed vigils and comfort the dying, revealing a finely developed awareness of death.