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WATCH: Chimp Cleaning Dead Son’s Teeth in Touching Human-Like Ritual

Mar 20, 2017 10:41 AM EDT
Mother Chimpanzee Holds Her Baby
The tender way a chimpanzee was captured to care for its dead son has touched the hearts of people worldwide.
(Photo : VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Scientists captured a chimpanzee taking care of her dead son and cleaning the corpse's teeth, similar to the way humans prepare their dead for a funeral. It's the first time such behavior has been observed in chimpanzees, potentially offering a peek into the beginnings of human mortuary practices.

According to a report from The Sun, Noel is a 33-year-old wild-born female chimpanzee who lives at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia. She was seen by researchers attending to her dead adopted son Thomas, a nine-year-old orphan that Noel started taking care of four years ago. He's believed to have died of a lung infection, a report from Phys Org revealed.

Noel was filmed selecting a blade of grass, then using it to carefully remove debris from the dead chimpanzee's teeth. She continued doing this as another female sat watching. The researchers also noted that Noel placed some of the debris in her mouth, possibly to try and understand the cause of her son's death.

The team of scientists from the University of St Andrews in the U.K. suggested that the strange human-like behavior could indicate that the chimpanzees' long-lasting social bonds still influence their actions after a partner has died, according to a report from New Scientist. Furthermore, the video shows that chimps treat the deceased with sensitivity and tenderness, like humans do.

Lead author Edwin van Leeuwen explained that their findings exhibit how compassion is not exclusive to human beings.

As the first ever footage of chimps using tools to clean the deceased, this study could also help researchers learn more about the origins of human mortuary practices.

Still, it's difficult to know for sure at this point about the intention behind the chimpanzees' actions. University of St. Andrews' Klaus Zuberbuehler, who was not involved in the study, acknowledges the remarkable behavior of the animals, but cautioned that it's near impossible to conclude the chimps' awareness.

"Perhaps, such social behaviour is a manifestation of human-like mourning, perhaps the chimpanzees are just challenged by the fact that a group member has suddenly become completely motionless," he said.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

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