And when a dead dolphin calf was spotted by another group of scientists near the Canary Islands in April 2001, it was also surrounded by several other dolphins, one of whom was presumed to be the mother. By the third day, the calf was floating on the surface, and by the fourth day, the calf was started to show signs of decay. While they did not attempt to recover the body, the researchers noted that whenever even a seabird attempted to approach the floating calf, it would immediately be chased away by the other dolphins.
As this group of dolphins was under continuous human observation, researchers could be reasonably certain that they were acting differently than usual. They travelled slower, remaining in the same general area far longer than was typical. Both of these observations suggested that they were responding specifically to the death of the calf. In each case, the attending dolphins worked together to prevent others from approaching the dead body, sometimes showing signs of aggression to those who tried. In each case, the attending dolphins deviated from their typical routines.
Learning about death
Chimpanzees, on the other hand, maintain their routines. When an infant chimpanzee dies, his or her mother will carry the lifeless body around for days. Sometimes for weeks or months. The mother continues to groom the body, slowing the inevitable decay. She only stops interacting with the corpse when it has decomposed so much that it is no longer recognizable. When a three-month-old female chimpanzee was killed in June at the LA Zoo, keepers allowed Gracie to retain her infant's body for several days, so that she'd be able to carry out this sort of chimpanzee grieving process.
This chimpanzee ritual was described in depth after researchers in Zambia chanced upon a female named Masya who was interacting with the dead body of her four-month-old infant. Writing in the American Journal of Primatology, researcher Katherine Cronin speculates: "The behaviours expressed by this female chimpanzee when she first endures physical separation from her dead infant provide valuable insight into… the possible ways in which chimpanzees gather information about the state of responsiveness of individuals around them (hence learning about ‘death’)." Similar practices have been observed among gorillas, baboons, macaques, lemurs, and geladas.
Elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees all have complex social behaviours that we only partly understand. Since it is so rare for humans to observe a natural death in the wild, most of the information that we do have comes from non-experimental case studies thanks to quick-thinking researchers. Even still, the available evidence offers an important reminder that humans are not the only animals who respond to death in a particular way. And the list of non-human animals that seem to do so keeps expanding: recent reports suggest that giraffes and western scrub jays may mourn as well, each with their own customs.
But we humans like to convince ourselves that we are somehow special, unique among the entire animal kingdom. And in some ways, we are. But for every facet of life that is unique to our species, there are hundreds that are shared with other animals. As important as it is to avoid projecting our own feelings onto animals, we also need to remember that we are, in an inescapable way, animals ourselves.
Is it possible that we're simply offering post-hoc explanations in an effort to justify behaviours to which we're naturally driven? The mortician who carefully embalms the recently deceased may have a great deal more in common than he realises with the chimpanzee who painstakingly removes parasites from her dead infant. What bonds us with the chimpanzee in this sense is that we are, in our different ways, simply trying to understand death.