Dogs, chimps, whales – it seems that animals suffer if they lose their beloved offspring or companions. Apparently animals understand death and mourn their dead like humans do. Is this true or is it only a projection of our own understanding to their behavior?

These are some mourning rituals that animal have:

Inseparable

A gorilla mum called Gana at Munster Zoo mourns the death of her baby, Claudio. She carried the dead body of her baby for days and defended it from the zookeepers. As researches say this is very usual for great ape mothers. Some of them would not even let their dead baby go for weeks, which later becomes mummified.

Ocean burial

Dolphins, orcas and other sea animals carry the dead bodies of their offspring for a while too. This is pretty difficult task to do underwater. Some researchers have observed dolphin mums balancing the dead offspring’s body on their beaks and after that they were diving so that the dead body can sank to the ground. If an adult dolphin dies their companions keep its body for days too.

Death watch

We know that elephants have great memory capacity therefore their mourning over their dead offspring or companion is pretty much intense. Usually they congregate in a wake around the dead elephant’s body. Even elephants that belong to other groups join the mourning just to say goodbye. Elephants also visit dead elephants’ bones and touch their skeletons with their trunks.

Grooming in consolation

Baboons are also known to show stress signs when their companion dies. According to the researchers the stress hormones level in their blood increases when they are distressed. They usually deal with the stress by seeking out their friends. They spend their time grooming which lowers the level of their stress hormones.

Calling to say goodbye

If a crow dies, their living companions call out the members of their species and they all gather around the dead animal. It is also interesting that they also do not eat for some period of time after the death of their companion. Birds like songbirds and geese have only one partner for their entire life and their mourning is stronger. The mourning is so strong that the other partner either stops eating or soon dies itself too.

Fish

Fish are said to be still after they face the death of their companion in the aquarium. According to the researchers this is due to the released stress hormones by the dying fish in the water. Some studies have been conducted to find out whether fish mourn their dead companions. However, this is conceivable only for the fish which live in pairs, such as the French angelfish.

Inter-species mourning

There are cases when animals grieve for the dead members of other species as well. The “Mauschen”, Asiatic black bear and the “Muschi” cat are perfect example of this. They were inseparable at the Berlin Zoo and after the bear’s death the cat refused to abandon her. The cat just stayed there and meowed in mournful way.

Guarding the grave

Humans mourn deeply when their dogs die. However, dogs also mourn if their masters die. The German shepherd “Captain” was guarding the grave of its master for years at the cemetery in Argentina known as Villa Carlos.

DW: “I own an aquarium with piranhas. After the death of one of them, the other six behaved very strangely. Their behavior was pretty calm and they did not eat at all. Probably they were mourning for their companion.”

Frans de Waal: “That is actually not possible, since piranhas often take bites out of one another. It means they are not that friendly with each other. Generally, fish do not mourn over the death of their companions, unless they are individually bonded, which was seen only in some species.”

Why was their behavior strange then?

De Waal states that Piranhas do not grieve, like other fish species may do.

– Schreckstoff is a substance released by the fish when they undergo stress. Probably that substance influenced the behavior of other fish.

What is the difference between “real” grieving and “just a strange behavior”?

– Real grieving happens only with mammals, particularly with mothers and their offspring. Also, animals which are individually attached to each other mourn over the death of their companion. This does not mean only flying or schooling together, but being really attached. Mammals of all kinds and birds, especially pair-bonded birds have such bonds. If their partner dies, they are strongly affected by its death.

Do animals mourn over their dead companions who belong to their species only? Do dogs really mourn for their owners or it is just our impression?

– It is actually true. A dog from Tokyo, Japan, which was called Hachiko lost his owner. After his death, the dog was going to the railway station waiting for the train with which his deceased owner had usually arrived. The dog was doing that for 10 years. If there are strong attachments between either dog and a human or cat and a human, there will be grieving too.

Hachiko was waiting at the railway station for his deceased owner, who had died years ago.

Do animals show their grief like humans do when their companions die?

– Actually they cannot mourn like humans do. Primates, especially chimpanzees usually show their mourning by refusing to eat for several days. They are silent, stare at the body of the deceased companion for long time and even try to revive it. That is typical human behavior. Humans used to do that too in the old times, but not anymore.

So, animals mourn only couple of days?

– If it is about close friend or offspring then it may last longer, even for years. There was a female that lost its offspring and was mourning and crying for months. So, it has pretty long-term effect.

How can we know if the animals really mourn? What if they are just out of their routine since they know something is missing?

Frans de Waal said that primates are aware of the fact that death is permanent condition.

– There was a story of a baboon mother which lost her offspring to a predator. After couple of weeks the baboon mother returned to the very same place where her baby was lost, climbed a tree and started calling. This indicates that she remembered what had happened on that place, where she had lost her offspring. Primates often make us believe they remember the deceased individual.

Do animals realize that their deceased companion or offspring will never come back?

– Primates do understand that permanency. When the animal is dead it does not move anymore, primates do see that and probably they understand.

Is there any proof of that?

– There is anecdote about this. Some bonobos have once found a really dangerous snake in the forest. They were terrified and started to poke it with their sticks. Then, the alpha female took the snake by its tail, hit it against the ground and eventually killed it. The alpha females are dominant over the males. After that the young bonobos took the snake, walked around with it and even played with it. This shows that they were aware of the fact that this animal is dangerous and they were very careful before killing it but after realizing it is dead they knew they can play with it. So, this implies they know death is permanent condition.

Do apes realize they themselves are supposed to die as well?

– This has not been proven yet since they have not shown any signs that indicate they do realize this.
Apes have deep bonds with their offspring and mourn when they die.

Do birds or other species mourn as the primates do?

– This is true for birds which have long-term bonds such as songbirds and geese. They refuse to eat and die themselves too after their partner dies.

Which animals mourn in the most striking way?

– Probably elephants, since they often go to the bones of their deceased beloved. After an elephant dies other elephants inspect whether they can find the bones of the dead elephant. However, the studies have not shown yet whether elephants go back to the bones of their companions and offspring or to the bones of any dead elephant.
Nevertheless, they return to the bones, like humans go to a graveyard.

Do some species dig graves for their dead?

– They do not do that. Probably they throw stuff over the body of their dead in order to cover it. It is actually a kind of defense against predators since the body smell may attract scavengers and predators. However, it is not sure whether they do this systematically.

Only humans dig graves, right?

This is Homo Naledi fossil which was found in 2013 in South Africa.

– That is true. Recently, a human ancestor, Homo Naledi has been discovered. According to the team, they used to bury their dead. This is closely related to humanity. However there are still some doubts regarding this.

Does the cause of conservation help us understand that animals mourn?

– Everything about animals which is related to their emotional lives and cognition of death helps, since it makes the animals seem more human-like and complex and even more attractive to people. This may change the way we perceive animals and may change even the way we treat them. This has ethical implications though.

Frans de Waal is an ethologist and primatologist from Holland. He is a Primate Behavior professor at the Emory University, psychology department in Atlanta. He is also a director of the Living Links Center at the National Primate Research Center, Yerkes. He works with bonobos and chimpanzees mostly. He is author of many books among which “Our Inner Ape” and “Chimpanzee Politics”.

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Dogs, chimps, whales – it seems that animals suffer if they lose their beloved offspring or companions. Apparently animals understand death and mourn their dead like humans do. Is this true or is it only a projection of our own understanding to their behavior? These are some mourning rituals that...