“Marla tells me how in the wild you don’t see old animals because as soon as they age, animals die. If they get sick or slow down, something stronger kills them. Animals aren’t meant to get old. Marla lies down on her bed and undoes the tie on her bathrobe, and says our culture has made death something wrong. Old animals should be an unnatural exception. Freaks.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Death. Every philosopher has an opinion on it and very little do we know of it. I’m not talking about the situations where some young adult drinks themselves into alcohol poisoning and then gets revived—I’m talking about biting the dust, pushing up daisies, becoming a root inspector, kicking the bucket, taking a dirt nap, or whatever euphemism you fancy.
We all know primates die; no one argues that much. But there is also significant evidence showing primates experience an awareness and emotional response to death as well.
Most famously, there is the example of Koko the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) experiencing mourning symptoms after her pet kitten, All Ball, escaped from its cage and was hit by a car. Francine Patterson, Koko’s caretaker, reported that she believed Koko had made sounds similar to human sobbing and communicating her distress through American Sign Language with signs such as “Bad-sad-bad” and “Frown-cry-frown-sad” (Patterson 1987).
In a recently published article for the American Journal of Primatology, James Anderson (2010) suggests context has a significant part in how primates respond to death as well. Evidence from deaths of individual group members suggest different reactions; mortality events from causes such as predation versus illness and even characteristics like age, sex, and social status may seem to play a role in these responses.
Compared to the situation with Koko, a captive gorilla; wild primates have also been recently recorded to display some mourning symptoms as well. For mothers with young infants that die, reactions can tend to have longer mourning symptoms. For example, two chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) mothers were found to transport their deceased infants for a prolonged period of time—68 and 19 days after death in the respective cases (Biro et al. 2010). In these situations, although the infants mummified, the mothers still treated them as living entities—swatting insects away and grooming them.
Morbidity events (which can become later mortality events) may draw emotional reactions from group members as well. Unlike chimpanzees, little evidence of compassion for group members is displayed in wild gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) (Fashing et al. 2010). In a situation where a mother (Tesla) was succumbing to a parasitic infection, conspecifics only peered back once at her and her infant (Tussock, who died a day later) before leaving the plateau to search for food. Days before her death, female group members allomothered Tussock as Tesla slowly trailed behind the group. It is unclear why these same females did not respond to the infant upon returning to the plateau; though, perhaps something to do with the costs of infants to females and can be burdensome to take on caring for an infant which is not biologically hers.
While it remains to be seen how much and in what specific circumstances the context and characteristics affect reaction, I know I’ll be looking forward to further research on this subject and the development of thanatological primatology, even if the deceased primates are “old, unnatural freaks.”
Anderson, J.R. (2010). A primatological perspective on death. American Journal of Primatology PMID: 21197638
Biro, D., Humle, T., Koops, K., Sousa, C., Hayashi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2010). Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants. Current Biology, 20(8), R351-R352. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031
Fashing, P.J., Nguyen, N., Barry, T.S., Goodale, C.B., Burke, R.J., Jones, S.C., Kerby, J.T., Lee, L.M., Nurmi, N.O., Venkataraman V.V. (2010). Death among geladas (Theropithecus gelada): a broader perspective on mummified infants and primate thanatology. American Journal of Primatology PMID: 21136522
Patterson, F. (1987). Koko’s Kitten. Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-590-44425-5