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Chimps ‘feel death like humans’

Chimpanzees, the closest evolutionary relatives of humans, react to death in a similar way that humans do, according to research released today.


Scientists focused on two cases to reach their conclusions – the death of an older female chimp living with a small group at a Scottish safari park, and two chimpanzee mothers in the wild who carried the mummified remains of their offspring for weeks after the infants had died.

“Science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think,” said James Anderson from Stirling University, who led the research in the safari park death.

“The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon,” wrote Anderson in the report that appears in the April 27 issue of the US journal Current Biology.

The report findings, combined with other observations “of how chimpanzees respond to dead and dying companions, indicate their awareness of death is probably more highly developed than is often suggested,” Anderson wrote.

In the days before the death of the elderly female chimpanzee – an event captured on film – the apes were silent and attentive to her needs.

Shortly before taking her last breath, the other chimps groomed and hugged the elderly female repeatedly to see if she was still alive.

When she died, the group moved away from the body, but shortly after, her adult daughter returned to stay overnight with the body, the researchers said.

“We found several similarities between the chimpanzees’ behaviour toward the dying female… and some reactions of humans when faced with the demise of an elderly group member or relative, even though chimpanzees do not have religious beliefs or rituals surrounding death,” Anderson wrote.

In the second study, led by Dora Biro of Oxford University, a team of researchers witnessed the death of two infant chimps in a semi-isolated chimpanzee community in the forests surrounding Bossou, Guinea.

“In each case, our observations showed a remarkable response by chimpanzee mothers to the death of their infants: they continued to carry the corpses for weeks, even months, following death,” Biro wrote.

During that period the corpses mummified, yet the mothers cared for them as if they were alive, carrying them everywhere during their daily activities.

Eventually the mothers “let go” of the infants, Biro wrote, allowing other group chimpanzees to handle the remains, including times when infant and juvenile chimps carried off the corpses and played with them.

“Our observations confirm the existence of an extremely powerful bond between mothers and their offspring which can persist, remarkably, even after the death of the infant,” Biro wrote.

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