Grieving animals?

Chimanzees mourning one of their own

Chimps line up to watch as Dorothy, who died of heart failure, is wheeled away.
Picture: Monica Szczupider, in the National Geographic Magazine (Nov. 2009)

The National Geographic Magazine reports: "On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon's Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade…. Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me:  'Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy's chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.' "

There are other examples of what looks like animal grieving behaviour, the case of elephants being the best known (here is a relevant video). Marc Bekoff, in an article forthcoming in Emotion, Space and Society, reports observing grieving magpies (magpies are Corvids, a very intelligent family of birds): "One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was lying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off."
These behaviours beg for an explanation. It is not implausible that it may involve some awareness of death, some emotional reaction to it, and some relatively fixed behavioural response (if you have other plausible explanations, please, do share them with us). Assuming that it is so, it raises the following question: To what extent are they culturally transmitted? Is there, for instance, evidence of inter-group variation? This is speculation, but if grieving behaviour is , to any extent, culturally transmitted among chimpanzees (and other animals), this would be an item of animal culture quite different from the mostly technological or communicational items that have been reported so far. In particular, it would have no obvious function (even if I can sense both social anthropologists and group selectionists immediately thinking of group cohesion, but this, to me, is hand waving).

(I am unhappy that relatively few social and cultural anthropologists contribute to this blog – although I know that some are secret followers. I am sadly aware that such a post is unlikely to make them come around, but c'mon folks, this is an intriguing and relevant question!)


  • comment-avatar
    Emma Cohen 1 November 2009 (17:06)

    What an amazing picture! I know little (well, nothing) about this, but I wonder if a much leaner interpretation might suffice… Perhaps some species are sufficiently tuned in to the behaviour of conspecifics that such apparent grieving reactions are really a kind of response to novelty. From the animal’s point of view, the dead individual is behaving very differently to how he or she normally would, and is totally unresponsive to any social communication, such as calls and gestures. Such behaviour would not just be odd, but, for a cooperative or social species, probably distressing in an unnerving sort of way. The burial situation takes the situation to a whole other level of novelty – seeing her being handled in this way by the carers, etc. Do they react similarly, I wonder, when other animals are manhandled under sedation? Ultimately, as far as I understand the current state of the art, very little is known about the emotional component of bonding in friendships and alliances of other species, including non-human primates. It’s hard to get at what is going on motivationally behind the observable and measurable behaviours (e.g. physical proximity, recpriocal grooming, etc.). Maybe careful observation of what happens when bonds are severed could be a road into answering this difficult question?

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    Ana Moscoso 13 November 2009 (14:58)

    As you wanted a comment so badly, here it goes a short one. This is a very interesting and pertinent question, but something puzzles me… in this specific example, these monkeys have been living near a human group for quite a good time, and, therefore, they might not be the perfect example of what you want to exemplify

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    Dan Sperber 13 November 2009 (16:32)

    It is in principle possible, I agree with Ana Moscoso, that the ‘grieving’ behaviour of these chimps is somehow explained by their untypical lifestyle at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center. I have no idea how this explanation would go, and I see little reason to favour it (as opposed to merely entertaining it). It would not extend to the case of ‘grieving’ elephants and magpies anyhow. Basically, I am nonplussed. I see no particularly plausible, let alone clear biological function for these behaviours. This is why I was suggesting that we also entertain the hypothesis that they may be culturally rather than genetically evolved. But, of couse, I have no good story on the cultural side either. The only clear but very minor merit of the cultural hypothesis is that if it were true, it would instantiate a rare bit of animal culture that does not serve a clear technical or communicative purpose. As Borges said, fact are allowed to be boring, but hypotheses not.

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    Royston Snart 14 November 2009 (20:11)

    I would suggest the chimps find they have no response available for a situation totally mysterious to them. They have not seen or had any contact with Dorothy as a diseased or injured tribe member prior to death, nor are the humans handling the corpse behaving as predators dismembering and eating it. The humans are probably not even seen as possible predators any longer by the tribe. It just does not fit any prior experience, so they have no set response. They are mystified, and speechless. Does that interpretation make any sense?

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    Vinciane Despret 16 November 2009 (22:10)

    I wonder whether Ana Mosoco’s comment does not proceed from a standard reaction when it comes to animal cultures (a reaction worth investigating, actually): It is as if animal culture should emerge from a kind of vacuum, or at the very least should not result from human interference. I then find Dan Sperber’s reply too guarded: of course the chimps’ grieving behaviour may have been fostered (rather than ‘explained’ as he would have it) by their untypical life-style, but even if such were the case, how much would it matter? What are the good reasons to hold that cultural behaviour must emerge and propagate in a species in a wholly autonomous fashion? Why should interspecific boundaries prohibit cultural contagion? The whole cultural story of domestication, the cultural character of which no one doubts, is told, I fear, just from our point of view, considering animals as the passive material of these innovations. From this point of view, I view Sperber’s article “Seedless grapes: Natures and culture” as a good exercise of disintoxication. One may of course, as Royston Snart proposes, re-read the story of these chimpanzees as involving a peculiar interspecific experience. If so, however, one should pay attention to the way in which the people in charge of the chimps’ sanctuary described their own intentions: They chose “to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return.” If one accepts James Averill Averill hypothesis (1986, « The acquisition of emotions during adulthood », In R. Harré ed., The Social construction of emotions. Oxford : Blackwell, pp. 98-118) that there is a heuristic of emotion — one learns to be sad about sad things, not to be proud of stars except in exceptional circumstances, and so on — one might be lead to see the chimpanzees as having responded to a proposal made to them to enter in the emotional and ritual universe of grieving. We would then have a nice example of interspecific cultural epidemiology.

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    jeremy mousset 22 February 2010 (04:58)

    I can’t give any hypotheses or interesting facts about cultural transmission of grieving behaviours among non-human animals. But in the case at hand, I think we have some clues about what is culturally “evolved” in this behaviour, as we are told that : “[i]A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade…. Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: ‘Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group.[/i]” The social/emotional importance of the “beloved” Dorothy, which is certainly not a detail if one is to explain this particular grieving behavior, is culturally evolved among and by this particular group. It is hard to tell in what extent an awareness of “death”; is implied here, but it seems quite clear, at least according to the volunteer, that there is indeed an awareness of a particular loss. This of course does not tell us anything about transmission. (And as a secret follower, I agree these are truly intriguing and relevant questions)