Heartbreaking images show baboons cradling their dead babies

Heartbreaking images show baboon mothers cradling their dead babies and continuing to groom them for up to ten days in new study

  • Researchers observed a troop of baboons in the wild in Namibia for 13 years
  • In this time they witnessed 12 cases of baboon mothers carrying dead infants
  • Male baboons were also seen to protect the corpses of their young from others
  • Experts believe the behaviour may be a result of grief or strong family ties

Heartbreaking images show baboon mothers cradling their dead babies and continuing to groom them for up to ten days in new study.

Researchers not only observed such behaviour among grieving mothers in the wild, but also saw male baboons protect the corpses of their young from others.

It remains unclear why baboons exhibit this behaviour, with some experts arguing that it helps the mothers deal with their grief, or results from strong family ties.

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Heartbreaking images show baboon mothers cradling their dead babies and continuing to groom them for up to ten days in new study

‘There are numerous hypotheses to explain primate responses to dead infants,’ said paper author and evolutionary anthropologist Alecia Carter of the Université de Montpellier in France.

‘Perhaps the strongest hypothesis is that carrying after death is an extension of nurturing behaviour.’

Dr Carter and colleagues spent 13 years following and observing a troop of Namibian chacma baboons, during which time they witnessed 12 cases of mothers carrying their dead young — including a miscarriage and two stillbirths.

The mothers were seen to carry the dead infants for an average of three–four days, although times varied between one hour and up to ten days.

Another theory to explain the behaviour — the so-called ‘unawareness hypothesis’ — is simply that the mothers are unable to tell that their baby has died.

However, this appears to be unlikely, as the baboon mothers were seen to treat the dead babies differently, frequently dragging them across the ground by one limb — something never witnessed with a live infant.

‘We are not suggesting that the mothers are unaware that their infants are dead, but there is such strong selection on mother–infant bond formation that, once formed, the bond is difficult to break,’ Dr Carter explained.

‘It’s less clear why only some mothers carry or protect their dead infant, but I suspect that a range of factors influence this behaviour.’

Dr Carter and colleagues spent 13 years following and observing a troop of Namibian chacma baboons, during which time they witnessed 12 cases of mothers carrying their dead young — including a miscarriage and two stillbirths

The team also found that male baboons would protect dead infants by threatening observers who got too close.

‘This is quite surprising behaviour, because it has rarely been reported by previous studies,’ said paper co-author and evolutionary biologist Elise Huchard, also of the Université de Montpellier.

‘Male baboons are not usually very paternal, but they regularly protect their infant from threats, especially from infanticidal attacks.’

Baboons are not the only primates to exhibit such behaviours.

‘Other primates have been observed carrying their dead infants for much longer periods of time,’ said Dr Carter.

‘Chimps and Japanese macaques, for example, have been observed carrying infants for over a month.’

It remains unclear why baboons exhibit this behaviour, with some experts arguing that it helps the mothers deal with their grief, or results from strong family ties. Pictured, a baboon cleans inside the mouth of a dead infant

‘However, chacma baboons travel much longer distances on an average day and the desert environment is harsh, making it costly for a mother to carry her infant for long periods,’ Dr Carter added.

Baboons live in large multi-sex groups of up to 100 primates, with strong male and female hierarchies.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

HOW ANIMALS MOURN THEIR DEAD

Various species have been seen to mourn their dead relatives and to carry out, in some cases, human-like behaviour after a companion has died.

Elephants, for example, are known to visit dead companions and to smell, touch with their trunks, and to repeatedly go to look at a member of their group who has died.

This vervet monkey on a game reserve in South Africa was seen carrying and grooming the body of her stillborn baby for 10 days after it died, by which time it had become stiff and started to rot

Chimpanzees, when faced with a death in their group, have been seen gathering around its corpse and cleaning or grooming the dead body. They may also refuse to visit the place where that ape had died for a few days afterwards. Chimps are also thought to mourn the loss of their mothers for a lifetime, with orphaned animals less social and less active than others.

Magpies have been seen burying the bodies of their dead under twigs and also to affectionately peck the dead body, in what scientists described as a ‘magpie funeral’.

Peccaries, a type of wild pig in the US, have been seen visiting their dead relatives and nuzzling it and sleeping beside it.

Whales and dolphins are also known to grieve their dead family members and scientists have in the past seen the mothers prop up or carry around their dead young and try to keep them afloat so predators don’t eat them.

Source: Smithonsian Magazine 

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