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New Study Reveals Why Primate Mothers Sometimes Carry Around Their Dead Infants

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Occasionally when apes and monkeys die, their mothers hold on to their corpses for days, weeks, or even months. During this time, they carry the dead young around, grooming them and, at times, even trying to feed them.

A new study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, found "infant corpse carrying" behavior among many primate species, including gorillas, chimpanzees, macaques, and baboons.

The study compared more than 400 published cases of a primate mother reacting to the death of her infant. Of those, 40 reported the mother picking up the infant's body and carrying it.

Scientists have been unable to determine a clear explanation for the behavior, "especially considering that it is costly and provides no benefit for them," according to study co-author Elisa Fernández Fueyo's website.

Younger mothers were more likely to carry their dead babies, according to the study. Researchers say older primates may have already learned when to recognize if their baby is dead and may be more able to break their bond with the baby as a result, suggesting that primates are able to attain an awareness of death over time.

Study co-author Dr. Alecia Carter (UCL Anthropology) said: “Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in similar ways to humans: it might take the experience to understand that death results in a long-lasting ‘cessation of function’, which is one of the concepts of death that humans have. What we don’t know, and maybe will never know, is whether primates can understand that death is universal, that all animals – including themselves – will die.

“Our study also has implications for what we know about how grief is processed among non-human primates. It’s known that human mothers who experience a stillbirth and are able to hold their baby are less likely to experience severe depression, as they have an opportunity to express their bond. Some primate mothers may also need the same time to deal with their loss, showing how strong and important maternal bonds are for primates, and mammals more generally.

It is also possible that the mother would be more likely to "accept" the baby's death if its body was mangled in an accident or attack.

It is also possible that the traumatic event that led to the death would scare off the mother and prevent her from holding the infant even if she wanted to.

But the younger the baby, the stronger the bond between the mother and the child, said Fueyo. "So it may be impossible for them to break [the bond] straight away," leading the mother to carry it longer, she said.

At this point, these preliminary findings can only lead to hypotheses and more research will put them to the test, Fueyo said.