Do chimpanzees understand death?

My new column for The New York Times Magazine involved some of the most emotionally intense reporting I've done in a while. It's all about a little-discussed genre of observation-based scientific papers, documenting what chimpanzees and bonobos (and, sometimes, other primates) do when confronted with death. These are difficult events for scientists to catch — they don't happen very often, and it's even less frequent that researchers happen to be right there to record and film the whole thing, especially in the wild. Because of that, scientists can't say a lot that's definitive about these behaviors. But they can tell you what they've seen. And what they've seen can be devastating.

Pansy was probably in her 50s when she died, which is pretty good for a chimpanzee. She passed in a way most of us would envy — peacefully, with her adult daughter, Rosie, and her best friend, Blossom, by her side. Thirty years earlier, Pansy and Blossom arrived together at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, Scotland. They raised their children together. Now, as Pansy struggled to breathe, Blossom held her hand and stroked it. When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.

That's my re-telling of an incident that happened in 2010 in Scotland and was originally observed by James Anderson, a primate psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland. His full paper is available online, and it's definitely worth a read. Anderson's paper is the one that got me into this topic to begin with and he was instrumental in my reporting.

The video above is a different incident, which I also talk about in the Times piece. This one involves a group of bonobos who defend the body of a newcomer and relative stranger to their pack. The footage was taken by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke.

Video Link


  1. I wonder if chimps can recognize their departed friends from photos. In a year, if shown pictures of Pansy, will her friends know what they are? I know apes can recognize live friends after many years, but how? Is it by sight, or smell, or something else?

  2. They sure don’t get all weepy about the monkeys they tear to shreds, though. So, just like us, basically.

  3. Humans seem to constantly underestimate the depth of other animals’ knowledge and intelligence. Scientists do this in an attempt to not anthropomorphize. Non-scientists do it in an attempt to feel superior.

  4. Wow…humans need to get over their superiority complex.  On of my stepson’s pet rats died of a tumor recently.  She passed away in the night.  The male rat cuddled up to her and guarded her body.  We got the body out of the cage and the male refused to move from the spot where she died.  He eventually wasted away and died.  If that isn’t grief, I don’t know what is.  This is a RAT!  A normally hyper-active one at that.   Yeah, I imagine a monkey or ape could have powerful symptoms of grief.  Humans don’t own the rights to complex emotions. 

  5. If I lie on the ground and hold my breath, by dog – which I’ve had for all of a month – will run over, push me, and try to rouse me (I’ve only done this once because I wanted to see how he’d react). Understanding or not, animal know when something is wrong.

    Chimps are smart. And they form deep interpersonal bonds. I can’t imagine they don’t understand death.

  6. This was from a small article in The NY times years ago….can’t find the original link.

    More than 30 angry baboons killed a man out of revenge in the Tororo District of southeastern Uganda, according to a report from the New Vision newspaper. A local council official said that the human victim, Okecho, killed a male baboon for damaging his maize and banana plantations. More than 30 other baboons converged at Okecho’s compound and “mourned like human beings” before carrying their fallen comrade into the forest. Neighbors said that the animals later returned and stormed the farmer’s house, knocking down the door. A New Vision reporter reaching the scene saw Okecho lying in a pool of blood with a large hole in his chest where the heart had been pulled out.

  7. This is a short video of Bernie Krause, the musician and audio investigator of wildlife and the environment, talk about the emotional content of animal sounds, including a devastating recording of a male beaver seemingly mourning the loss of his family:

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