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.
Given the trend lately to look backwards, historically, in search of the ideal human diet, I found this article by Rob Dunn really interesting. Dunn discusses some new research that gives us a better idea of what our closest relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—are eating out in the wild.
Some of the takeaways fit neatly into the current human food zeitgeist—chimpanzees eat a diverse and varied diet, only consume small amounts of meat, and (for obvious reasons) focus on what happens to be in season and available. But some of the information is less apparently applicable to us. For instance, chimpanzees fracking love figs. In fact, different species of figs make up nearly half of all the food the chimpanzees in the study were eating. Figs, people. Can't get enough of 'em.
But the larger point, Dunn writes, is that we can't really apply any of the facts about chimpanzee diets directly to ourselves in a "Just So Story" sort of way. Geography, resource availability, and culture don't work like that. Neither does biology.
You are unlikely to eat like a chimpanzee eats. If you are the average American, you eat more meat and more simple sugar. You eat differently because of choices you make and choices our societies have made (e.g., to produce huge quantities of the foods that most simply satisfy our ancient urges). You also eat differently because the species around you are different, unless you happen to own a greenhouse specializing in tropical African trees.
But even if you were to abandon agricultural food and move into a forest in Tanzania you would still not eat exactly like a chimpanzee. By most reports the food chimpanzees eat tastes bad, at least to humans, (though, one hopes, not to chimpanzees). By some accounting the food chimpanzees eat is also insufficient to keep a human alive and fertile.
For PBS NewsHour, Miles O'Brien reports on whether there are ever instances in which the scientific value of research should offset the moral cost of working with chimpanzees. The US government has moved to limit some of the research it funds with chimps in recent months. Medical experiments on chimps can be invasive: one animal may endure dozens of injections, blood samples and liver biopsies in her lifetime. But some scientists argue that this is the only way to advance medicine. MP3 and transcript here, along with video.