Get access

Death among geladas (Theropithecus gelada): a broader perspective on mummified infants and primate thanatology



Despite intensive study in humans, responses to dying and death have been a neglected area of research in other social mammals, including nonhuman primates. Two recent reports [Anderson JR, Gillies A, Lock LC. 2010. Pan thanatology. Current Biology 20:R349–R351; Biro D, Humle T, Koops K, Souse C, Hayashi M, Matsuzawa T. 2010. Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants. Current Biology 20:R351–R352] offered exciting new insights into behavior toward dying and dead conspecifics in our closest living relatives—chimpanzees. Here, we provide a comparative perspective on primate thanatology using observations from a more distant human relative—gelada monkeys (Theropithecus gelada)—and discuss how gelada reactions to dead and dying groupmates differ from those recently reported for chimpanzees. Over a 3.75-year study period, we observed 14 female geladas at Guassa, Ethiopia carrying dead infants from 1 hr to ≥48 days after death. Dead infants were carried by their mothers, other females in their group, and even by females belonging to other groups. Like other primate populations in which extended (>10 days) infant carrying after death has been reported, geladas at Guassa experience an extreme climate for primates, creating conditions which may favor slower rates of decomposition of dead individuals. We also witnessed the events leading up to the deaths of two individuals and the responses by groupmates to these dying individuals. Our results suggest that while chimpanzee mothers are not unique among primates in carrying their dead infants for long periods, seemingly “compassionate” caretaking behavior toward dying groupmates may be unique to chimpanzees among nonhuman primates (though it remains unknown whether such “compassionate” behavior occurs outside captivity). Am. J. Primatol. 73:405–409, 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.