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Gorillas guard corpses of strangers

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Christian Fernsby |
Africa   What happens to individuals who die and do not belong to the group?

Animals react differently to the death of their neighbors.

The social insects eliminate or bury the bodies, the sharks have necrofobia and move away from the corpses.

Californian charas, birds from western North America, organize funerals with songs, and elephants, giraffes, cetaceans and primates assist and care for them.

In the latter case, what happens to individuals who die and do not belong to the group?

An international team of scientists, led by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, has observed and recorded for the first time the behavior of a group of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) before the death of a dominant male of 35 years, named Titus, and a female of 38, called Tuck, who belonged to the group and who had died from diseases related to their advanced age in the Rwanda Volcanoes National Park.

In parallel, they observed another group of eastern lowland Gorillas (Gorilla b.graueri) at the death of an unknown male in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since certain interactions between gorillas can lead to violence, scientists surmised that individuals would become more involved and spend more time with the corpses of members of their own group than with the unknown.

However, the results, published in the journal PeerJ, surprisingly reveal that the behaviors of both groups were very similar , and in the three funerals the groups veiled the bodies of the deceased.

"The animals in all three cases showed a variety of affiliative and agonizing behavior towards the corpses," the researchers stress in their work.

Before the three corpses, the rest of the gorillas not only remained seated near the deceased as a sign of mourning, but also sniffed, touched, groomed and licked .

In the case of mountain gorillas, individuals who shared closer relationships with the deceased stayed longer with the body.

One of them, a young male, whose mother had left the group, came to spend two days in contact with the male Titus, sleeping even with him, according to the observations of the researchers.

One of the younger children of the female Tuck groomed her body and even tried to be nursed by the deceased, despite having already been weaned.

For scientists, this behavior would show anguish for the loss of the mother.

According to the research team, this work not only has an interest in how animals perceive and process death, but also has important implications for conservation.

If the corpses were inspected in detail, it would be observed that the bodies present a serious risk of disease transmission.

According to experts, contact between healthy individuals and infected corpses could be the main route of spread of diseases such as Ebola, which has affected and killed thousands of gorillas in Central Africa.

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