Last week the Internet and European news outlets were flooded with poignant photographs of Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at the Münster Zoo in Germany, holding up the body of her dead baby, Claudio, and pursing her lips toward his lifeless fingers. Claudio died at the age of 3 months of an apparent heart defect, and for days Gana refused to surrender his corpse to zookeepers, a saga that provoked among her throngs of human onlookers admiration and compassion and murmurings that, you see? Gorillas, and probably a lot of other animals as well, have a grasp of their mortality and will grieve for the dead and are really just like us after all.
Nobody knows what emotions swept through Gana’s head and heart as she persisted in cradling and nuzzling the remains of her son. But primatologists do know this: Among nearly all species of apes and monkeys in the wild, a mother will react to the death of her infant as Gana did — by clutching the little decedent to her breast and treating it as though it were still alive. For days or even weeks afterward, she will take it with her everywhere and fight off anything that threatens to snatch it away. “The only time I was ever mobbed by langurs was when I tried to inspect a baby corpse,” said the primatologist Sarah Hrdy. Only gradually will she allow the distance between herself and the ever-gnarlier carcass to grow.
Yes, we’re a lot like other primates, particularly the great apes, with whom we have more than 98 percent of our genes in common. Yet elaborate displays of apparent maternal grief like Gana’s may reveal less about our shared awareness of death than our shared impulse to act as though it didn’t exist. Dr. Hrdy, author of “Mother Nature” and the coming “Mothers and Others,” said it made adaptive sense for a primate mother to hang onto her motionless baby and keep her hopes high for a while. “If the baby wasn’t dead, but temporarily comatose, because it was sick or fallen from the tree, well, it might come back to life,” Dr. Hrdy said. “We’re talking about primates who have singleton births after long periods of gestation. Each baby represents an enormous investment for the mother.”
Everywhere in nature, biologists say, are examples of animals behaving as though they were at least vaguely aware of death’s brutal supremacy and yet unpersuaded that it had anything to do with them. Michael Wilson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota who has studied chimpanzees at Jane Goodall’s research site in Gombe, said chimps were “very different from us in terms of what they understand about death and the difference between the living and the dead.” The Hallmark hanky moment alternates with the Roald Dahl macabre. A mother will try to nurse her dead baby back to life, Dr. Wilson said, “but when the infant becomes quite decayed, she’ll carry it by just one leg or sling it over her back in a casual way.”
Juvenile chimpanzees display signs of genuine grief when their mothers die. In one famous case in Gombe, when a matriarch of the troop named Flo died at the age of 50-plus years, her son, Flint, proved inconsolable. Flint was 8 years old and could easily have cared for himself, but he had been unusually attached to his mother and refused to leave her corpse’s side. Within a month, the son, too, died.
Yet adult chimpanzees rarely react with overt sentimentality to the death of another adult, Dr. Wilson said. As a rule, sick or elderly adults go off into the forest to die alone, he said, and those that die in company often do so at the hands of other adults, who “sometimes make sure the victim is dead, and sometimes they don’t,” he said. The same laissez-faire attitude toward death-versus-life applies to chimpanzee hunting behavior. “When they’re hunting red colobus monkeys, they will either kill the monkeys first or simply immobilize them and start eating them while they’re still alive,” Dr. Wilson said. “The monkey will continue screaming and thrashing as they pull its guts out, which is very unpleasant for humans who are watching.”
For some animals, the death of a conspecific is a little tinkle of the dinner bell. A lion will approach another lion’s corpse, give it a sniff and a lick, and if the corpse is fresh enough, will start to eat it. For others, a corpse is considered dangerous and must be properly disposed of. Among naked mole rats, for example, which are elaborately social mammals that spend their entire lives in a system of underground tunnels, a corpse is detected quickly and then dragged, kicked or carried to the communal latrine. And when the latrine is filled, said Paul Sherman of Cornell University, “they seal it off with an earthen plug, presumably for hygienic reasons, and dig a new one.”
Among the social insects, the need for prompt corpse management is considered so pressing that there are dedicated undertakers, workers that within a few minutes of a death will pick up the body and hoist or fly it outside, to a safe distance from hive or nest, the better to protect against possible contagious disease. Honeybees are such compulsive housekeepers that if a mouse or other large creature, drawn by the warmth or promise of honey, happens to make its way into the hive and die inside, the bees, unable to bodily remove it, will embalm it in resin collected from trees. “You can find mummified mice inside beehives that are completely preserved right down to their whiskers,” said Gene E. Robinson, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
But all is not grim for those dead in tooth and claw. Researchers have determined that elephants deserve their longstanding reputation as exceptionally death-savvy beings, their concern for the remains of their fellows approaching what we might call reverence. Reporting in the journal Biology Letters, Karen McComb of the University of Sussex and her colleagues found that when African elephants were presented with an array of bones and other natural objects, the elephants spent considerably more time exploring the skulls and tusks of elephants than they did anything else, including the skulls of rhinoceroses and other large mammals.
George Wittemyer of Colorado State University and his colleagues described in Applied Animal Behavior Science the extraordinary reactions of different elephants to the death of one of their prominent matriarchs. “One female stood over the body, rocking back and forth,” Dr. Wittemyer said in an interview. “Others raised their foot over her head. Others touched their tusks to hers. They would do their behaviors, and then leave.”
They were saying goodbye, or maybe, Won’t you please come back home?