Do Giraffe Mourn Their Dead?

This piece by Nick Collins in the Daily Telegraph caught my eye, following a report that a giraffe in Luangwa Valley had been mourning its dead calf. This fine creature was photographed in the Chobe National Park, Botswana.

“According to zoologist Prof Fred Bercovitch, the mother spent two hours with her calf after it died, splaying her legs to bend down next to it and lick it in an extremely unusual display of behaviour. The incident, witnessed by Prof Bercovitch at the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, is only the third case on record of a giraffe mother stoically remaining with their dead calf.

It raises the question of whether giraffes, along with animals such as chimpanzees and elephants which are well known for investigating the bodies of dead relatives, may have a deeper understanding of death than previously thought. Writing in the African Journal of Ecology, Prof Bercovitch, a researcher with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Surrey, described how the mother had splayed her legs apart in order to bend down over her dead newborn.

She then licked the calf for several minutes before standing upright, and repeated the entire act a number of times over a period of more than two hours, during which she was alone. The behaviour was unusual because giraffes rarely bend so low other than to feed or drink, and females spend very little time away from their herd, BBC Nature reported.

The mother’s reaction to the calf’s death was less prolonged than that seen in African elephants and less overt than chimpanzees, which have even been seen carrying their dead young with them.

But it is one of three examples of apparent “mourning” by giraffe mothers, with the mother in one case remaining beside her calf for four days after its death.

Although it is not clear from such behaviour that animals understand death, the latest evidence at least shows that female giraffes have a more complex bond with their young than previously thought, Prof Bercovitch said.

By examining whether a wider range of species show a similar reaction when members of their family or kind die, it could be possible in future to answer the question of whether animals really do mourn, he added.