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Is This Mother Giraffe Mourning Her Dead Baby?

Mother giraffes join the ranks of elephants, polar bears, chimpanzees, gorillas,and other animals in the practice of mourning their dead

Photo: bobosh_t

Mother giraffes join the ranks of elephants, polar bears, chimpanzees, gorillas,and other animals in the practice of mourning their dead. Or at least seeming to. For the third time on record, the BBC reports, zoologists in Zambia spotted a mother giraffe engaged in mourning behavior over the body of her young calf. For two hours, the researchers watched as the mother giraffe splayed her legs and bent down to repeatedly lick and nudge her dead newborn. Female giraffes, they note, rarely spend time alone, and the animals hardly ever splay their legs unless to eat or drink.

Only twice before has anyone observed giraffes behaving in a similar manner. In 2010, another female spent four days standing vigil near the body of her recently deceased calf. In the other instance last year, a male giraffe stopped to investigate the body of a dead female and inspired four other members of the herd to join him.

Though most mammals show only passing interest when encountering a dead member of their kind (and some – like lions – eat each other’s corpses), the giraffes are not the only tender hearted beast. Elephants are one example, according to Discovery:

African elephants are reported not only to exhibit unusual behaviors on encountering the bodies of dead con-specifics, becoming highly agitated and investigating them with the trunk and feet, but also to pay considerable attention to the skulls, ivory and associated bones of elephants that are long dead.

When researchers present elephants with items made of bone, wood or ivory, the elephants inevitable pay much more attention to the ivory than the other non-elephant derived products. The same held true for skulls; elephants chose to investigate other elephant skulls rather than rhino or buffalo skulls.

Sometimes animals do more than display curiosity at the sight of their dead. Chimpanzees sometimes become so depressed at the death of a mother or close relative that they refuse to eat, ultimately starving themselves to death. Gus, a polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, was inconsolable when zookeepers had to euthanize his mate of 24 years, Ida. The New York Times reports:

Gus held court in the space they used to share. With sticks, toys and other playthings untouched, he spent Monday morning swimming between two rock structures, eyes peering out of the shallow waters as he drifted.

Some researchers think these displays indicate that certain species other than humans have a “mental mode” of death. In other words, mammals like elephants and primates may be capable of conceptualizing death and feeling sad about it.

The BBC reminds, though, that scientists still need to gather evidence from a range of species before they can tackle the question of whether animals truly mourn, and  if so, when in evolution that trait first appeared.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Death of a Sea Monster  

Oil Spill Finally Confirmed as a Culprit in Dolphin Deaths 
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