Why chimpanzees carry dead infants: an empirical assessment of existing hypotheses


Lonsdorf, EV; Wilson, ML; Boehm, E; Delaney-Soesman, J; Grebey, T; Murray, C; Wellens, K; Pusey, AE


The study of non-human primate thanatology has expanded dramatically in recent years as scientists seek to understand the evolutionary roots of human death concepts and practices. However, observations of how conspecifics respond to dead individuals are rare and highly variable. Mothers of several species of primate have been reported to carry and continue to interact with dead infants. Such interactions have been proposed to be related to maternal condition, attachment, environmental conditions or reflect a lack of awareness that the infant has died. Here, we tested these hypotheses using a dataset of cases of infant corpse carrying by chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania (n = 33), the largest dataset of such cases in chimpanzees. We found that mothers carried infant corpses at high rates, despite behavioural evidence that they recognize that death has occurred. Median duration of carriage was 1.83 days (interquartile range = 1.03-3.59). Using an information theoretic approach, we found no support for any of the leading hypotheses for duration of continued carriage. We interpret these data in the context of recent discussions regarding what non-human primates understand about death.


Lonsdorf, E. V., M. L. Wilson, E. Boehm, J. Delaney-Soesman, T. Grebey, C. Murray, K. Wellens, and A. E. Pusey. “Why chimpanzees carry dead infants: an empirical assessment of existing hypotheses.” Royal Society Open Science 7, no. 7 (July 1, 2020). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.200931.

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