By Michael Marshall
Over the last few weeks, many people have been deeply moved by the story of a female orca who spent over a fortnight swimming with the dead body of her calf, apparently grieving. The story is a dramatic illustration of something that has become increasingly clear in recent years: many animals grieve for their dead.
The orca is called Tahlequah and belongs to a pod known as J, which roams the north-east Pacific Ocean. Her baby died shortly after it was born on 24 July, according to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.
Tahlequah proceeded to carry the body for at least 17 days, during which time she covered 1600 kilometres. On Saturday 11 August, the Center reported that she was no longer carrying the body. Instead she joined her fellow pod members in chasing a school of salmon, and seemed “remarkably frisky”.
Among certain kinds of animal, such grieving behaviours appear to be quite common.
Grief seems to be most common in highly social animals that live in tight-knit groups. This makes sense: social animals would come to value their friends and family, and accordingly would feel a loss when they die. In contrast, animals that live solitary lives and do not care for their offspring would have nobody to grieve.
Orcas fit the bill: being a kind of dolphin, they are highly intelligent and live in groups. Indeed, there have been previous instances where orca mothers were seen carrying the bodies of their dead infants. The same is true of many other cetaceans, the group to which orcas belong and which also includes other dolphins and whales. Bottlenose dolphins have been seen lifting the corpses of their fellows above water, as if trying to help them breathe.
There is also growing evidence that African elephants grieve. They pay particular attention to the bones of elephants, compared to bones of other species, and become agitated if they come across an elephant’s corpse.
Perhaps more surprisingly, pig-like animals called peccaries have also been observed seemingly grieving for a dead group member. A 2017 study tracked a herd of peccaries after one of their number died and found that they visited her body repeatedly, generally either alone or in pairs. The peccaries sometimes simply stood nearby, and at other times they nuzzled the body, tried to pick it up and even slept next to it.
Monkeys like us
Some of the most extensive evidence for animal grief comes from primates like monkeys and apes: our closest living relatives.
In one remarkable incident, a female snub-nosed monkey fell from a tree and cracked her head on a rock. Her partner, the alpha male of the group, sat with her and gently touched her. After she died he spent a further five minutes with her, pulling gently at her hand as if trying to revive her, before leaving. His behaviour suggests that he understood something of the finality of death.
Chimpanzees have been seen carrying the corpses of dead infants, often for weeks. In one instance, a captive chimp called Pansy died, after which her fellow troupe members first cleaned her corpse, and then avoided the place where it lay. This behaviour resembles a funeral ritual.
Grieving does not seem to be universal among primates, but this may have to do with the environments in which they live. In hot and wet regions, corpses decay and become unpleasant very quickly, forcing the animals to abandon them. In contrast, monkeys called geladas live in cold places where decay is slow, and have been observed carrying corpses for up to 48 days.
And animal grief can take surprising turns. In some instances, apes have stopped carrying the corpses of dead infants – and eaten them instead. Such cannibalism seems to be moderately common in chimpanzees, but rare in bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans.
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