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How a mother chimpanzee responds to the death of her infant

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(PhysOrg.com) -- For the first time, researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands report in detail how a chimpanzee mother responds to the death of her infant.


The research team conducted their observations at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, where wild-born chimpanzees who have been rescued from illegal trade live in the largest social groups and enclosures in the world. Dr. Katherine Cronin and Edwin Van Leeuwen of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics collaborated with Innocent Chitalu Mulenga of Chimfunshi and Dr. Mark Bodamer, a professor of Psychology at Gonzaga University in Washington State, USA.


Chimpanzee mothers typically are in close contact with their offspring for several years, carrying them almost continuously for two years and nursing until they are four to six years old. The close relationship between the mother and offspring continues for several years after weaning, and is one of the most important relationships in chimpanzee life.

Cronin and her colleagues observed the behavior that a female chimpanzee expressed toward her 16-month-old infant who had recently died. After carrying the infant’s dead body for more than a day, the mother laid the body out on the ground in a clearing and repeatedly approached the body and held her fingers against the infant’s face and neck for multiple seconds. She remained near the body for nearly an hour, then carried it over to a group of chimpanzees and watched them investigate the body. The next day, the mother was no longer carrying the body of the infant.


The MPI researchers ... believe to have reported a unique transitional period as the mother learned about the death of her infant, a process never before reported in detail. But they largely refrain from interpretation, while providing extensive video to allow viewers the opportunity to judge for themselves what chimpanzees understand about death.


Previous reports have documented chimpanzee mothers carrying their deceased young for days or weeks, demonstrating that the severing of the mother-infant bond is incredibly difficult for chimpanzees. The current research complements these observations.


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