By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – The research study of a mother chimpanzee tending to her dead infant by Gonzaga University behavioral psychologist Mark Bodamer and colleagues sheds new light on the mother-infant bond and the potential for chimpanzees to learn about death. Some assert the video-supported research depicts humans’ closest genetic relatives mourning, but the researchers say more evidence is needed to make that claim. Decide for yourself in the video below.
Bodamer, an associate professor of psychology at Gonzaga, and co-researchers Katherine Cronin and Edwin Van Leeuwen from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands and Zambian researcher Innocent Chitalu Mulenga, published the report “Behavioral Response of a Chimpanzee Mother Toward her Dead Infant” in the March issue of the American Journal of Primatology. The highly detailed research includes video clips documenting the behaviors of the mother chimpanzee, Masya, in May 2010 after her 16-month-old infant died, and the behaviors of the dead infant’s sister, Mary. Little is known of primates’ reaction to the death of close individuals, and the researchers believe they are the first to describe in detail a unique transitional period as the mother learned of her infant’s death.
The study does not mention mourning, but media reports of it do, including: “Chimps ‘Mourn Their Dead Infants,’” in the United Kingdom newspaper The Telegraph, and “Haunting Footage Reveals How Chimps Mourn Death” at Treehugger.com.
Chimpanzees and humans share more than 98 percent similar DNA and 99.8 percent similar blood, and the study refers to the apes by name. Anthropomorphizing great apes’ behavior was once considered a scientific taboo. However, the fieldwork of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas has made the role of empathy more widely accepted. With this acceptance has come increasing recognition that the great apes are toolmakers with linguistic abilities, individuality and culture.
The study also contributes to research on the crucial mother-infant bond, which plays a central role in human and non-human society.
Whether the chimps are mourning, however, remains an open question for Bodamer now in his 10th year of research at Chimfunshi, and his fourth year as a Gonzaga professor taking students, faculty and staff there. He is considering ways to accommodate alumni as well; if interested, contact Bodamer at (509) 313-6494 or via e-mail.
Bodamer, who directs the Zambia Chimfunshi program, called the research “intriguing.”
“As we gather more information, this (mourning) inference may be more supported. We’re intrigued our closest living relative is responding behaviorally to the death of her daughter in a manner comparable to humans,” Bodamer said.
After carrying the dead infant for more than a day, the mother tenderly placed the infant on the ground to watch over her child, creating physical distance between herself and her deceased infant for the first time.
“The behavior of the mother toward her dead infant not only highlights the maternal contribution to the mother-infant relationship but also elucidates the opportunities chimpanzees have to learn about the sensory cues associated with death, and the implications of death for the social environment,” the researchers noted.
The videos force viewers to consider what might be happening, Cronin said.
“Whether a viewer ultimately decides that the chimpanzee is mourning or is simply curious about the corpse, is not nearly as important as people taking a moment to consider the possibilities,” Cronin said.