Do chimpanzees understand the concept of death?

This question was featured in the winter 2013 edition of Chimp Chatter, our quarterly newsletter.

Dear Patti,

Do chimpanzees understand the concept of death?

From, Alex

Dear Alex,

This is a highly debated subject that scientists have no definitive conclusions about as of yet.  From what we know so far, it seems that chimpanzees and other apes do seem to have a rudimentary understanding of death, although it is not as advanced as it is in humans.  This understanding may be related to some of our higher functioning cognitive abilities like self-awareness and our capacity to feel compassion towards others.

Mother apes have been known to carry around and groom their dead infants, long after the bodies have begun to decompose.  Researchers have also observed offspring and close acquaintances sitting vigil at the side of a dying companion, as well as individuals appearing to check a body for signs of life by poking, prodding or even attacking it.

After Maggie died, it was important to the caregivers and staff that myself and the other chimps have an opportunity to say goodbye to her.  Just like a wake, they laid out Maggie’s body and let us come and pay our respects.  There was a palpable sense of anxiety in the air as we all gathered around to see her.  Thiele groomed Maggie’s toes through the mesh, Jackson passed her a flower, and Topo displayed until he seemed to have no energy left inside of him.  The caregivers also noticed subtle changes in our behavior for a few days following Maggie’s death.  Some of us had quieter demeanors and sought more reassurance from the caregivers than normal, while others of us showed no difference in our behavior at all.

Though a great deal more research on the subject needs to be done, it seems clear that chimpanzees are able to distinguish the difference between someone who is alive and someone who is unresponsive, perhaps like an empty shell whose usual resident has departed.

Maggie was an amazing chimp and a loving sister, and she will be forever missed.

Love, Patti