Mourning and cannibalism: what monkey behavior says about the benefits of evolution

Monkeys, like humans, experience deep pain when they lose their cubs. Recently, a female borer named Kumasi was observed carrying the body of her dead infant for several days after its death. However, she later ate the corpse in a rare case of primate cannibalism And while this behavior may seem horrible, it may have evolutionary advantages affecting the mother’s chances of reproducing in the future.

The monkey in question, a female borer (Mandrillus leucophaeus), is an understudied and endangered species. She gave birth to a son in the Dvur Kralove Safari Park in the Czech Republic on August 24, 2020. However, the infant died eight days later of an unknown cause.

Initially, Kumasi continued to hold the body of her dead cub and interacted with it as if it were alive. Other monkeys also tried to interact with the dead infant by looking him in the eyes. However, two days after its death, Kumasi began to devour the remains until the keepers took the body away. Interestingly, no other monkeys showed any interest in the remains.

This event, while gruesome, provides important information about animal behavior. The study of death-related phenomena in non-human animals forms part of what is known as “comparative thanatology,” which investigates different reactions to the body. In this case, researchers captured the fate of a baby monkey and its mother by studying a training group.

“This is the first report of postmortem carrying and cannibalism of an infant in a captive exercise group,” the research team notes.

The researchers have now published their observations in a new paper that includes videos of Kumasi carrying and caring for its infant, as well as other monkeys trying to interact with the corpse. They also show that Kumasi’s behavior has changed and she is finally eating the remains.

It is unclear, however, what the motives behind Kumasi’s initial responses were. Perhaps she was mourning the loss, but researchers suggest that she probably did not understand what was happening or was in a state of denial. During the “postmortem phase,” Kumasi and other members of the troop tried to look into the child’s eyes, and Kumasi tried to keep the body away from the males.

“Monkeys and great apes often examine the face of their dead cubs in this way, perhaps to perceive eye movements. When mothers don’t get any feedback from the baby, it probably means something is going wrong,” says Elisabetta Palaggi, a primate biologist at the University of Pisa in Italy.

After a few days, Kumasi became more aggressive and scattered the baby’s body around the enclosure before beginning to eat it in a phase of “postmortem cannibalism.” Researchers believe that these actions may serve a purpose.

“As described in other species, adult male and other participants in our study group’s corpse-directed behaviors included grooming the body, staring, sniffing, touching, and dragging. Some authors suggest that these actions may serve to test the cadaver’s response,” the research team notes.

Studies of this kind provide a better understanding of the evolutionary aspects of animal behavior and habitat adaptation. Such observations can be useful for the conservation and protection of endangered species, such as borers.

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