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We can’t know if or how animals understand death, but behavioral changes in some species could mean they experience something similar to human grief.

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Other animals are more like us than you might expect.

Some can recognize faces or use tools, and a puppy wagging its tail seems like it’s showing some sort of emotion. Or maybe you’ve seen videos of elephants reacting strangely to dead herd members, almost like they’re mourning.

But it’s hard for us to know what they’re really doing, and why. We can’t know if or how animals understand death, but some anthropologists have come up with a basic way to define grief: It’s a change in behavior in living creatures that knew the deceased. And while this is one way to define grief in humans, it’s also a useful guideline for scientists who are trying to understand grief in nonhuman animals.

Now, these researchers are looking for behavioral changes that go beyond checking out or getting rid of a corpse, such as an animal switching up its daily routine or showing what looks like distress. Some animals are all business, and we haven’t noticed any signs of grief from them. Lions, for example, will casually eat their dead companions rather than pass up some easy calories.

And for animals like bees and naked mole rats that live in dense colonies, hygiene is a big concern. These species tend to quickly dispose of dead bodies, or at least seal them away from the living, to avoid exposure to decay and disease. Crows and jays, part of a bird family called corvids, gather near dead flockmates in what can almost look like a noisy wake.

But some ornithologists think that they might just be alerting other survivors and investigating how their companion died, to learn about possible threats. With so many different responses to death, it can be hard to tell which species might go beyond pragmatism and experience grief. But some of the likely suspects are mammals known for their intelligence.

Elephants have been documented to show strong reactions to the remains of their dead, while ignoring the bodies of most other animals. They may gently touch and investigate an elephant corpse, stay with it for days, or detach the tusks and carry them up to a half a mile away. There are even some cases where elephants covered their dead with dirt and plant matter.

And none of this is really normal behavior. Elephants, apes, baboons, and dolphins have all been observed carrying dead infants for days, even as they start to decay. In fact, dolphins have been known to guard carcasses so aggressively that they’ve kept researchers from getting close.

Captive chimpanzees have reacted to the death of a group member by becoming quiet and subdued, or vocalizing frantically. Which kind of seems like distress. And monkeys and lemurs have also been observed making distinct sounds, and visiting a dead body many times.

So sometimes the ways in which animals react to death remind us of us. And sometimes they don’t. It’s tricky to study things like emotion and intelligence in other animals.

But it’s not too surprising that humans aren’t the only species who notice when someone vanishes from our lives. Thanks to our Patreon patrons for asking! If you want to learn more about all kinds of animals, from porcupines to parakeets, check out our sister channel Animal Wonders over at

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