Chimps’ emotional response to death caught on film

In the final hour, they huddled around, studied her face and shook her gently as if to revive her. And when the others had drifted away, one stayed behind to hold her hand.

As death scenes go, it has all the poignancy of human loss, but this was no everyday tragedy. The last breath was drawn before scientists’ cameras and represents one of the most extraordinary displays of chimpanzee behaviour ever recorded.

Video footage of the death of Pansy, who at fifty-something was the oldest chimpanzee in the UK, was released by scientists today. The film captures for the first time the complex reactions of our nearest evolutionary cousins to the death of a group member.

Studying the apes’ behaviour could tell us as much about ourselves as the attachments and responses to death that chimpanzees exhibit within their groups and families, scientists believe. It could also challenge procedures for dealing with terminally ill animals in captivity.

“Some of these behaviours have never been seen before in chimpanzees. It leads us to ask questions about the evolutionary origins of our own response to death and dying in a member of our own group or family,” said Jim Anderson, an expert in the social behaviour of non-human primates at Stirling University in Scotland, who recorded the footage. “Many of our greatest philosophical questions concern death and dying and how we perceive it and deal with it.”

Pansy, a female who died of old age at Blair Drummond Safari Park at the end of 2008, was one of four chimpanzees being filmed by Anderson’s group. When she became ill, vets paid regular visits to give treatment, while her companions – her daughter, a male and another female – looked on from a distance.

When Pansy lay down in a nest that one of the other apes had made, the rest gathered around her and began grooming and caressing her. Shortly before she died, all three crouched down and inspected her face very closely. They then began to shake her gently. “It is difficult to avoid thinking that they were checking for signs of life,” said Anderson.

Continue reading: www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/apr/26/chimps-emotional-response-death-film

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