Do Animals Understand Death?

Many species move as a group, but when a member passes, do they grieve their loss? Their communal behavior just might warm your human heart.

According to a fascinating report over at New Scientist, the quiet death of a monkey in China is reviving an enduring debate in science: Do animals grieve their dead?

As Natalia Reagan explores in today's DNews report, there's no consensus answer to the question among biologists -- but anecdotal evidence abounds. The recent incident in China was documented by James Anderson of Kyoto University in Japan, who was monitoring a group of snub-nosed monkeys in the Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve.

According to Anderson's published report, a female from the group took suddenly ill, then fell from a tree and died. The female's partner, the group's alpha male, remained with the body for five minutes, touching and pulling at her hand, before returning to the main group. After researchers buried the female, the alpha male and rest of the group returned to the spot where she died and sat for several minutes.

The report is the latest of several recent studies in which animals animals appear to engage in grieving and mourning behavior, suggesting that humans aren't the only species to experience bereavement.

RELATED: Modern Mourning: New Ways We Honor Our Dead

In another study from Cameroon's Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, a group of chimps were seen gathering around an older female who had recently died. The chimps behavior suggested that the animals were "paying their respects" as a group, observers say.

Chimpanzee mothers who have lost their infants have been observed carrying their dead offspring for days or even weeks, trying to revive them. This suggests the animals are capable of understanding or processing death, researchers say. This kind of behavior is mostly commonly observers in primates, including gorillas, macaques and baboons.

But other species have been reported to mourn their dead, as well. The group of birds known as corvids -- crows, ravens, magpies and rooks -- have been observed holding improvised "funerals" for deceased relatives. Possible death rituals have also been observed among dolphins, elephants and domestic cats.

There are essentially two schools of thought on the matter. Some scientists contend that animals do not feel grief or empathy, and that ascribing such feelings to them is simple anthropomorphization. Others say that it's "species-centric" to assume that only humans can have these traits. In any case, you can click on over to the New Scientist story for some empirically sad photos and videos.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

BBC: Death Rituals In The Animal Kingdom

Wired: What Death Means To Primates

The Wildlife News: Do Corvids Gather For Funerals?