Monday, September 01, 2008

Harrowing Look at Death in the Animal World

Last week, the world was shocked and saddened by the death of a 3-month old gorilla, Gana, who died in the Munster Zoo, Germany. After dying of a heart defect, reports the NY Times, Gana's mother, Claudio, carried the baby's "ever-gnarlier carcass" around, refusing to give it up to zookeepers.

According to primatologists, Claudio's behavior is standard. And it shows how both humans and primates share an awareness of death and an "impulse to act as though it didn’t exist," reports the Times. In chimps, mothers will try to nurse dead children back to life. And in one case, scientists observed a young chimp that would not leave its dead mothers side. He remained with his dead mother for a month before dying himself.

But the primate's relationship to death is not all sadness and sympathy. When dealing death to other primates, it's pretty brutal. One scientist told the Times how he has observed chimpanzees eating other primates alive as they "scream and thrash." The researcher described it as "very unpleasant for humans who are watching."

In other parts of the animal world, behaviors related to death vary. Lions eat their dead comrades. Naked mole rats drag their fallen to the "communal latrine", which is eventually sealed when full.

Insects are particularly diligent when it comes to "corpse management." "Dedicated undertakers" transport the dead to safe distances from a hive within minutes after expiring. And if a creature should crawl into a bee's hive and die, the bees will "embalm it in resin." "You can find mummified mice inside beehives that are completely preserved right down to their whiskers,” said one expert.

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