Chimpanzees Console A Bereaving Mother

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Zoë Goldsborough, of Utrecht University, and crew have published an open access special feature in the journal Primates. Their paper documents the observation of chimpanzees consoling a bereaving chimpanzee mother who experienced a still birth. This is a fantastic study that builds on our prior knowledge that chimpanzees do mourn the death of a group member (Teleki 1973, Boesch and Boesch-Achermann 2000, and Stewart 2012). They treat their dying (de Waal 2004) and have different behaviors when an adolescent member dies compared to an infant (van Leeuwen 2006). This is the first study to document bereaving after a still birth.

In the paper, the authors document the behavioral responses of 15 adult captive chimpanzees, in the Royal Burgers’ Zoo, after a recently integrated adult female gave birth to a fully developed and healthy-looking stillborn. Their study began two months before the still birth event, so they had a baseline of behaviors prior to the event.

The observers noticed changes in affiliation patterns on and after the day of the still birth. They collected about 120 hours of group observations and about 13 or so ours of each individual to make these observations. Five individuals didn’t interact at all with the bereaving mother prior to the event.

After the event, all five interacted with her more and three of the five spent a substantial amount of time with her. The day following the event, the bereaving mother, who never received kisses and other gestures was observed to have received kisses and other forms of caressing.

This is a very well documented behavioral study tat shows captive chimpanzees temporarily increased the quantity and quality of their affiliative behaviors towards a recently bereaved mother.