Rare TV footage shows how chimps cope with death

Fri Apr 30, 2010 2:43pm EDT
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By Stuart McDill

STIRLING (Reuters Life!) - Researchers in Scotland say rare video of a chimpanzee dying has offered a unique glimpse of how one of man's closest relatives deals with death and grieving.

The pictures show the final hours and moment of death of an older female chimp living in a small group at a British safari park as captured on video.

"Many people thought that death awareness is uniquely human so our observations are causing us to question whether the distinction in terms of death awareness between humans and non-humans is as great as people thought," said Jim Anderson, a senior lecturer at Stirling University's psychology department.

Anderson said they have observed distinctly novel behavior because traumatic deaths have been seen before: "but never a peaceful death like this."

In contrast to the kind of commotion that follows a sudden death, the chimpanzees at Blair Drummond Safari Park, near Stirling, were mostly calm.

The footage shows group members grooming and caressing the sick female and apparently testing her for signs of life as she died. They left her soon after her death but her adult daughter returned and remained by her mother all night.

When keepers removed the mother's body the next day, the chimpanzees remained calm and subdued. For several days they avoided sleeping on the platform where the female had died, even though it was normally a favored sleeping spot, and remained subdued for some time after the death.

"I was surprised that they did all gather round at the moment of death and the subsequent, you know, manipulating the body, shaking her shoulders, shaking her head as if they were trying to rouse her," said PhD student Louise Lock, who initially placed the cameras in the enclosure to study nocturnal behavior.   Continued...