A funeral for a spy monkey

By Alfie Shaw

What a ‘dead’ spy camera can teach us about grief.

The tiny creature lies motionless on the ground as adults surround its lifeless figure, consoling each other in a somber embrace. You don’t need to be an animal behaviour expert to recognize what is going on in this scene. We may think of grief as a uniquely human experience, but as this case and numerous others show us, we are simply not alone in mourning for our dead.

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To film a troop of Langur monkeys in India, the crew of Spy in the Wild deployed an animatronic monkey with an inbuilt camera – spy-monkey. The monkeys accept the interloper into their midst, with one trying to act as a babysitter. However, she fumbles and drops the spy-monkey from a great height. When it doesn’t get up (remember, not a real monkey) she appears to believe the tiny creature is dead. What happens next is a heartwarming display of what you might consider to be very human behaviour.

Primates grieving over the death of a troop member is not a recently observed phenomenon. Studies have found many different species of primates display signs of grief, however, a study on Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care shows that the length and intensity of their mourning period varies between species. They have also exhibited signs of depression after a loss, failing to respond to stimuli that previously provoked a positive reaction. One of the most extreme cases of this was recorded in a family of chimpanzees by Jane Goodall in 1972. When a female named Flo died, her son Flint - who had been highly dependent on his mother - began to show symptoms of clinical depression. Flint stopped engaging in social interactions and refused to eat. Eventually his immune system collapsed and he died within a month of his mother’s death.

study on New World monkeys observed that not only do primates grieve, some have even shown signs of caring for dying members of their troop. A female marmoset fell out a tree and collided headfirst with an object buried in the ground. The male marmoset, with whom she had been paired for around three and a half years, shielded her from the attention of other marmosets until she died two hours later.

ahe Common Marmoset
The common marmoset is also called the white-tufted-ear marmoset or cotton-eared marmoset. © Susanna Saunders | Getty

Certain groups of primates, such as Japanese macaques and howler monkeys, have been witnessed holding ‘vigils’ for fallen troop members. These can last for up to five days. In 2018, the Camperdown Wildlife Centre in Dundee closed for just under a week to allow a troop of lion-tailed macaque time to mourn when one of their young died.

Sometimes, however, instead of standing guard over a corpse, the deceased infant is carried as the troop travels. Primate mothers have been known to carry the bodies of infants for extended periods of time (10 days or longer), but, a study on Death among primates shows it is a matter of hot debate whether these mothers are actually aware that their offspring has died. They carry the deceased in an unusual manner, including upside down and dragging it across the floor. Interestingly, this study on Dialects in Japanese Monkeys shows that Japanese macaques have been recorded making specific vocalisations only after the death of an infant, implying some level of awareness.

two chimpanzees touching
Chimpanzees use an array of tools to forage, hunt and eat with. © Anup Shah | Getty

To what degree primates have an understanding of ‘respect for the dead’ seems to vary. At one end of the spectrum, there are the reported sightings of cannibalism, clearly marking a transition from family to resource. However, in 2017 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, a chimpanzee used rudimentary tools to clean the teeth of a fellow chimp who had died. While chimps have been seen to clean their teeth during their lifetime, this was the first time it was observed to be performed as a funeral rite.

Featured Image © BBC Studios