A look at how chimps react to death
Chimpanzees seem to feel the death of a loved one in very human ways, according to two studies that used videotapes to observe reactions to the death of an older female chimp in one case and of baby chimps in the other.
The older female, Pansy, was part of a small group living in captivity at a Scottish safari park. Over the course of several days, she grew increasingly lethargic and stopped eating. Researchers observed as other chimps kept vigil over her, grooming and caressing her. After Pansy died, her daughter stayed with the body all night, while the rest of the group appeared "profoundly subdued," according to the study, and for a time avoided sleeping in the place where Pansy had died. The dominant male chimp showed anger, charging the corpse, and later showed fear about returning to the spot where she had died.
In the second study, several members of a semi-isolated chimp community in the West African nation of Guinea died from a flulike respiratory illness. Among them were two babies. The mothers of both babies continued to carry them around long after they had died, grooming them, tending to the mummified corpses as they would to live babies and even allowing young chimps to play with them.
"Although we tried hard to avoid anthropomorphism when describing the chimpanzees' behavior, it was difficult not to see some striking parallels between how they reacted to the dying individual and how humans react when faced with the peaceful death of a close relative or companion," James Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland and lead author of the Pansy study, said in an e-mail. "It is often stated that humans are unique in being aware of death, but our observations . . . indicate that this position is open to question."
The study of the mothers hanging on to their dead babies suggests that "a period of continued contact after the death of an infant may be important for a mother chimpanzee to adjust psychologically to her loss." Sounds pretty human.
The studies appear in the April 27 edition of the journal Current Biology. The Pansy study can be read at http:/
-- Margaret Shapiro