In recent years we've seen a number of animals, including elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees, "grieve" over deceased group members. But canids are notably — and surprisingly — absent from the list of mourners. For the first time, researchers have now documented a wild dingo mother showing "care-giving behavior" towards a dead pup. Is this evidence of a canid in mourning?
Emotion in nonhuman animals is a tricky subject. Most people would probably agree that animals experience the most basic emotions — after all, you can't watch this gorilla play in leaves and not think it's happy and having fun. However, the idea of animals having complex emotions, particularly grief, is more open to debate.
The thing is, most animals really don't pay much attention to deceased or dying conspecifics (species members). But there are a few social species that do appear to grieve.
For example, elephants show considerable attention to the skulls, tusks and other bones of dead conspecifics. And last year, a giraffe in captivity splayed her legs to bend down and lick her dead newborn, a novel behavior she repeated several times in two hours. Researchers have also seen primates, including chimps, gelada baboons and capuchins, carry around dead infants for up to a few weeks, unable to let go. Dolphins are known to handle their dead calves similarly.
A few years ago, Rob Appleby, an ecologist at Griffith University in Australia, saw a dingo family reacting to a pup's death in much the same way that primates and dolphins do. For canids (family that includes wolves, foxes and coyotes), the behavior was quite unique. "We couldn't find anything like it in the literature about wild canids," Appleby told io9.
The dingo family consisted of a mother and five pups about 3 months old. When Appleby stumbled upon the family, one of the pups was dying — it was lying on the ground, where it occasionally lifted its head, whimpered and sometimes convulsed. The pup's mother and littermates roamed around nearby, returning to the pup to sniff him and whimper every once in a while. The pup died within half an hour, but Appleby continued to periodically observe the family over the next two days.
The dingo mother moves her dead pup when a researcher gets too close. Courtesy of Elsevier.
During that time, "there was a lot of distress on the part of the mother," Appleby says. She hung around her dead child, whimpered and sometimes raised her hackles (a sign of arousal). At one point, Appleby got too close, causing the mother to pick up her deceased pup and carry it away from him (see video). This wasn't the only time she moved her pup, he notes — he found the pup in different locations on three subsequent visits to the family.
Importantly, dingo mothers only carry their young until they're about six weeks old, Appleby says. Moreover, the way the mother moved around the pup wasn't consistent with typical dingo caching behavior (where they store food for later consumption). The mother's actions instead paralleled how primates sometimes respond to death, including the fact that the dingo hung around and transported her pup for two days, the average amount of time that primate mothers will hold on to their dead infants.
And the mother wasn't the only one who changed. The surviving pups, which are normally very boisterous and playful with one another, also showed a stark shift in mannerisms. "They were playing normally with one another, but whenever they got close to the dead pup, they calmed down," Appleby says. "They were quite cautious with how they physically interacted with the pup."
Though the family's behavior is consistent with the idea of grieving and sadness, Appleby is apprehensive to label it so. "How do we begin to quantify something like grief in animals?" he asks. Unlike with humans, you can't just ask animals how they're feeling. Rather than grief, he says, "I think it's fair to call it 'care-giving behavior' from an enduring mother-infant bond."
Appleby's documented the dingo family's behavior last month in the journal Behavioral Processes.
Top image via Henry Whitehead/Wikimedia Commons