Do Chimpanzees Mourn?

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 1, 2012 16

Do chimpanzees actually mourn the loss of loved ones similarly to the way that humans do? Some observations of wild chimpanzees have indicated that they do.

Very little is known about how animals other than ourselves—especially nonhuman primates—react to the deaths of those close to them and whether they “mourn,” as we interpret the feeling.

But recently, researchers at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, where wild-born chimpanzees that have been rescued from illegal trade live in the largest social groups and enclosures in the world, released never-before-seen video of a chimp community reacting to the death of a nine-year-old male. Additional footage shows a female chimpanzee in the aftermath of the death of her 16-month-old infant. After carrying around the baby’s dead body for more than a day, the mother laid it out on the ground in a clearing. She repeatedly returned and held her fingers against the infant’s face and neck for several seconds. After an hour had passed, she took the body over to a group of chimpanzees and watched them investigate. The next day, the mother was no longer observed carrying the infant.

The researchers are careful to say that this is not proof of actual chimpanzee mourning. As one of the lead scientists on the team which took the videos, Dr. Katherine Cronin of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, puts it: “Whether a viewer ultimately decides that the chimpanzees are mourning or simply curious about the corpse is not nearly as important as people taking a moment to consider the possibilities.”

Watch the footage below and decide for yourself.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Lori Secouler-Beaudry April 8, 2012 at 11:45 am - Reply

    I am a cliical psychologist with two degrees in anthropology. My focus is switching from humans to other primates and comparing behavioural differences, neurobiology when it is available (ie: fMRI`s) and primate sociobiology. The mourning process is not limited to humans, but we are afraid of the old bugaboo of ànthropomorfic thinking.` In the 70`s, when I was writing children`s stories I was not allowed to use athropomorphisms! So afraid to ascribe to other primates anything that remotely looked like human behaviour, we kept our thoughts to ourselves . To avoid being stifled or laughed at, we didn`t even ask the questions, let alone find a way to answer them. If we investigate the neurobiology of loss in humans, I feel safe in saying that other primates brains are signalling something akin to the physical pain of what we call grief. Are we afraid that if we ascribe human feelings to what we humans call `lesser beings`. we will have to change what we eat, how we raise and slaughter cattle, where do we draw the line between ok and not ok –
    I have to get out of my own way here, as I admittedly sound like a freshman discovering patterns for the first time. I was a 36 year old freshman at Temple U in Phila., and now a developmental psych prof at St. Mary`s in Halifax. Obviously my bucket list includes holding a baby chimp. Or gorilla. Would someone like to help this wheelchair bound anthropsychologist to contribute to my ‘knowledge bucket`?.

  2. John Christie March 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    Looked like funeral scenes to me.

  3. Travis March 6, 2012 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    I believe it’s mourning, and the curiosity is as much a part of it as anything.

  4. Vianney Jacob K. March 4, 2012 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Yes..chimpanzees do mourn..i have worked as a chimpanzee guide for two years and i have seen them mourns the death of their young ones or mothers..

    • Ron Scheurer March 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm - Reply

      Once a parasympathetic bond is formed between individuals, a separation affect of some sort – not necessarily mourning; and dependent on the intensity of the bond – is very probable.

  5. Jane Primerano March 2, 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I have seen horses, dogs and cats express behaviors I can only classify as mourning. Including my kids’ pony kicking a new horse that was being brought into the stall that had been occupied by her stablemate for years.

  6. Zoe March 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    I believe this, and countless other stories of animal emotion, are as real and true as any human emotion and it is unfortunate science has not yet come to recognize this. As a wildlife biologist and trained interspecies communicator I have personally experienced the range and depth of emotion expressed by domestic and wild animals. Research currently conducted in the fields of quantum physics and parapsychology is beginning to show that the connection between humans and non-human species, in addition to inter- and intraspecies connections, are deeper and more complicated than previously imagined.

    Please reference the following:

    Horowitz, A. 2011. Theory of Mind in Dogs? Examining Method and Concept. Learn. Behav. 39: 314-317.

    Heyes, C. M. 1998. Theory of Mind in Nonhuman Primates. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21: 101-148.

    Durr, H. P. 2007. Sheldrake’s Ideas: From the Perspectives of Modern Physics. Frontier Perspectives 16(1): 27-39.

    Sheldrake, R. 1999. Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals: An Investigation. Three Rivers Press, New York, New York, USA.

    Sheldrake, R. 2009. Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation. Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, USA.

    All of these theories are preliminary and controversial, but the earth was also considered flat once. Lets open our minds in the nature of science to new possibilities.

  7. Jayalakshmi March 2, 2012 at 8:56 am - Reply

    I befriended a stray dog during one of my moves to a new town. I left for a holiday after making arrangements with a student to feed the doggie when I was away. The day I got back I could see tears in my adopted pet’s eyes…evidently he had missed me…although he made a life long friend of the student who fed him in my absence. I think animals feel many human emotions like loss, separation etc, maybe more keenly than we do sometimes…

  8. Bob V. March 2, 2012 at 7:42 am - Reply

    There may be, but there is no evidence that animals experience anything as complex as the feelings that humans associate with the word “love”. The strong feeling that humans call “love” is suppose to hold human families together – but not always. For an example; present high child orphaned rate, children and mother abuse and violence against them, divorces, etc, etc.
    Recognizing this, myself and other scientists have settled on the word “bond” to describe the attachment that primates have for one another.
    Bonds are the glue that holds primate families and troops together, whether a parent with its young or a male and female in a “pair bond”.

    Most people generally use descriptive words with much human overtones for animal behaviours that they cannot define. I’m therefore of the opinion that chimpanzees and any other primate species are not capable of mourning because “love” for the deceased is absent.

    In regards to the video; it is common behaviour amongst Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) and Vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aithiops) to investigate the corpse of a dead troop member.
    At our Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre we sedate new primate arrivals prior to their introduction to other members of the same species. This method allows the group to investigate (touching and smelling) the sedated new arrival without any agonistic behaviour from the new arrival. The one specific scene where a adult Chimpanzee hit the deceased on its chest illustrates to me that he/she was curious if the deceased would demonstrate any reaction to the group’s touching and smelling. This similar behaviour is always observed during our primate introduction phase and was also observed amongst wild populations.

    The scenes with the dead infant is also common amongst the mentioned primate species at our centre and also in the wild. The mother would carry her dead baby for up to three days after which she would let it go.
    Interesting experience with the withdrawal of the dead body is that the corpse does not have the normal death (rotten meat) odour.

    I definitely don’t know whether primates can actually recognize death in the way we humans do, and what description or wording we should use instead of mourning.

  9. Kate Nivison March 2, 2012 at 6:36 am - Reply

    My sister’s dog, with whom she had a remarkably empathetic relationship, would howl a bit, then whimper at the sound of his ‘friend’ Lucy’s name and come to my sister for ‘sympathy’ when he ‘realized’, after days of watching from the front window, that Lucy wasn’t around any more. I fact she’d been run over and died.
    Sitting still one day, I tried whimpering and pretending to cry one day when my (female) cat was in the room asleep. She woke, came straight over and and pawed, sniffed and checked me, then rubbed against me until I stopped. I was stunned. I never thought cats ‘cared’.
    Why do I bother putting in those quote marks?

  10. Katherine McGill March 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    We do not label an infant who can not yet speak as less human than we are, nor people in a foreign country, simply because we can’t communicate with them. Like animals of all species, we read body language often over spoken words. Animals communicate differently, we know this, why are we still in 2012 so fearful to acknowledge that as sentient beings non-human animals are capable of many similar emotions as we are?

    I’m grateful I did not pursue science.

    Yes, animals mourn. I don’t know those chimpanzees personally to know their behavior but as Sue pointed out, why can’t they mourn in different ways, since they are individuals after all? I witnessed a raccoon I know very well mourn the loss of a friend for 5 days. She did not want to eat, she laid on the floor most of the first 48 hours staring at where he had died (euthanized). The rest of the days she sulked or paced, would not play with others.

    Raccoon intelligence has been documented (Purdue) second only to higher monkeys and chimps in various tests, but anyone who has lived with many domestic species has witnessed what could only be described as mourning, for other animals and for humans.

  11. Krystina P. March 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Touching. Especially the mother chimp carrying around her dead baby. Thank you, but why is it so difficult for scientists to accept the fact that they are experiencing a mourning period? What are they supposed to do? Grab a shovel and build a pine box? Aren’t chimps essentially, very much like humans? If elephants can mourn, why not assume the same for chimps?

  12. C. Epstein March 1, 2012 at 11:49 am - Reply

    YES! In fact I just read an article about the research.

  13. Sue Fulsher March 1, 2012 at 9:34 am - Reply

    We each mourn in our own way and so do animals. My observations in this area include dogs, cats, horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, various birds in the wild, as well as fox, deer, rabbits, racoons, squirrels and opossum for over 60 years. I have found that the animals experience with death dictates the interaction. At first quietly inquisitive like us wondering what has happened. Depending on the relationship with or to the individual the length of quiet time spent with the varies. Detecting a scent for future association with death is learned and remembered sometimes causing extreme fear, flight or aggression in the future. Especially in the wild an animal may retreat to a distance during daylight hours only to return at night to continue the observation process. The closer the relationship the less willing an individual is to abandon the body, sometimes attempting to return it to a safe place. The actions of the female with the dead infant was the most telling. By moving to the fence and showing her dead baby to the observers she was probably trying to communicate her understanding of the same cause of death. I have seen a horse display obvious shock at the sight of a stablemate whose body was swiftly deformed by a devastating infection. I have seen animals panic and try to help the body of an victim of sudden death. Observing those animals for years after the event has convinced me the loss of death even in a different species is remembered, learned, sometimes mourned and sometimes feared. It depends on the collective experience of the animal. Just like us.

  14. Wendy Worrall Redal March 1, 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Absolutely fascinating. One would think that observing a dead chimp would be a relatively frequent occurrence, and if it were merely mundane, the chimps would pay little heed. Whatever we are watching here is certainly not that. It reminds me of a question raised in the new documentary film The Whale, in which a young orca was separated from his pod on Vancouver Island and strayed more than 300 miles north, by himself. He eventually reached the harbor of a small fishing village where he hung out for days on end, following boats and seeking contact with humans. Some marine biologists felt the animal was lonely and craving social bonds, while others would not venture toward such anthropomorphizing. Yet, watching the footage, I couldn’t come away with any other conclusion.

  15. Wendy Liscia March 1, 2012 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Thank you for posting this Candice. Pretty incredible.

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