Animals and death

Last week, when I was driving to university, I passed what appeared to be a dead guinea fowl on the side of the road with a live one investigating the corpse. The guinea fowl incident reminded me of the links I’d been storing up relating to whether animals understand death and mourn when those they know die. This was a topic I found first in a BBC story and then later when it was also mentioned on WEIT.

Both pieces discuss a paper that described three different incidents of giraffes investigating their dead, very unusual behaviour that may suggest they have some understanding of death and a process of mourning. As I think animals are intelligent this is naturally of interest to me. We, humans, are animals too and, while we have a “more developed” brain, we have many similarities to other animals and it’s not too much of a stretch to think other animals share many of our traits. If this were just an isolated incident then it would make sense to dismiss it but it’s not the only such story going around.

Another recent incident involved an experiment with western scrub jays. Here scientists placed objects in people’s gardens and recorded how the jays reacted. The jays gave alarm calls and grouped together in response to both stuffed, prostrate jays and stuffed owls, as well as investigating the stuffed jays. Stuffed jays mounted upright elicited an aggressive response and so were probably mistaken to be alive. A little bit after those reports came a column describing what might be mourning behaviour in elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, all animals known to be highly intelligent. All these incidents have the common feature of animals clustering around their dead companion in what some people describe as a funeral.

While this is all very exciting and interesting there is of course the danger that we are just seeing what we want to. I already believe animals are intelligent and I have a strong interest in anthropomorphic animals in fantasy so it’s not hard for me to accept these reports. Luckily there are those people that are more sceptical and can try keep the rest of us grounded in reality, or at least temper our enthusiasm. For example Prof Fred Bercovitch, who wrote the paper describing the giraffe incidents, says:

But the importance of the discovery may also lie more in that it widens the number of species that react when relatives or members of their own kind die.

Only by collecting evidence from a range of species can scientists begin to investigate whether animals do mourn, and when in evolution the trait appeared.

Similarly Professor Jerry Coyne, who write Why Evolution Is True, expressed his own reservations:

But none of that convinces me that this is anything other than simple curiosity (“what is that thing that looks like us lying on the ground?”) or maternal behavior and puzzlement over a newborn not moving.

As a partial rebuttal to Coyne, when animals see their baby or herd mate die there can’t be that much curiosity about what the thing is and, in the scrub jay experiment, there were painted pieces of wood used to entice the birds’ curiosity, although they failed to have any effect.

Professor Barbara King wrote a piece on the scrub jay experiment, asking whether describing their behaviour as a funeral, as the article title did, was inappropriately anthropomorphic or not. With communication with the author she came to find that funeral was used “only to the extent that it is an animal paying attention to another dead animal.”

So things are not yet settled here. There are some interesting observations but there are also many doubts about what they actually mean as well as the possibility of inappropriate anthropomorphism confusing the issue even further. Furthermore, most of these stories are just anecdotal and so don’t count as particularly strong evidence. However, when there are so many of them in different species I do think that means it’s at least worth paying attention to. For my part I’m cautiously optimistic. I think there’s enough evidence to say animals have emotions and are intelligent and so to describe their behaviour as mourning doesn’t seem to be making too big of a leap.

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One thought on “Animals and death

  1. Pingback: E&R’s first birthday! | Evidence & Reason

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