Grieving apes carry their dead infants

The picture on this page shows a baboon carrying her long dead infant. It is unsettling but it is also the process of grieving. In this respect apes are very similar to people. Although we don’t know whether primates can understand that all animals including themselves will die one day. A study has been conducted – the most comprehensive of its kind – which sheds light on how primates mourn and grieve. And the results clearly indicate that they gradually come to terms with death like humans.

And carrying an infant around for an average of two days across all species, but for a maximum of 126 days in the case of an individual female chimpanzee, helps with that grieving process.

Baboon carrying long dead infant
Baboon carrying long dead infant. Credit: see photo.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It studied 50 species of monkey and ape and assessed how more than 400 females responded to the loss of their child. In addition to carrying around dead infants, they found that older females were better able to deal with the death of an infant compared to younger females. They came to understand the finality of death. And so, the scientists also concluded that primates were able to learn about death like humans.

Because older females were better able to deal with the death of an infant, they were less likely to carry their corpses. Across all the species studied 80% exhibited “corpse carrying behaviour”. Monkeys including baboons and macaques and the great apes did it most often. Chimpanzees are the most likely to carry corpses during the grieving process and they are the primates most cognitively similar to humans. Scientists said that “This is good evidence of grief”.

The primates which had diverged from the great ape lineage over a longer period of time such as lemurs did not carry dead infants. The closer the bond between mother and child, the longer the corpse was carried. Also, the corpses of younger primates were carried for longer periods.


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