For first time, chimpanzee observed performing funeral rites for dead as mother cleans the body of ‘Thomas’

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By Sarah Knapton

A chimpanzee has been filmed using tools to apparently clean the corpse of its adopted offspring, the first hint that animals other than humans may have mortuary practices.

The female, Noel, was seen at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia using a stem of grass to remove debris from the teeth of a nine-year-old male, Thomas, which she had looked after since the death of its mother four years earlier.

She was one of a number of chimps that surrounded the body for around 20 minutes, gently touching and sniffing Thomas despite offers of food to lure them away. Noel stayed on its own to clean the teeth of its adopted son, even when the others had left.

Dr. Edwin van Leeuwen, of St. Andrews University, lead author of the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, said: “Noel approached Thomas’s body, sat down close to his head, turned her upper body sideways to select a hard piece of grass, put the grass in her mouth, and opened Thomas’ mouth with both of her hands.

Chimpanzees gather around the body of Thomas, a nine-year-old who died of pneumonia.

“Then she wrapped her fingers around Thomas’s chin and jaw, and used her thumbs to explore his teeth. After three seconds, she took the grass out of her mouth with her right hand, while maintaining focused grip on Thomas’s mouth with her left hand, and started to meticulously poke the grass in the same dental area as where her thumbs had been.

“This behaviour has never been reported in chimpanzees or any other non-human animal species. Chimpanzees may form long-lasting social bonds and like humans, may handle corpses in a socially meaningful way.”

Nina, Noel’s adolescent daughter, stayed at its mother’s side and observed the cleaning efforts.

The researchers say Noel might have been trying to understand how Thomas had died. She was seen tasting the debris she picked from his teeth. A post mortem found Thomas had most likely died from a combination of a viral and bacterial lung infection.

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