International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 860–871 | Cite as

Response of Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) to the Body of a Group Member That Died from a Fatal Attack

  • Jacqueline S. Buhl
  • Bonn Aure
  • Angelina Ruiz-Lambides
  • Janis Gonzalez-Martinez
  • Michael L. Platt
  • Lauren J. N. Brent


Among animals that form social bonds, the death of a conspecific may be a significant social event, representing the loss of an ally and resulting in disruptions to the dominance hierarchy. Despite this potential biological importance, we have only limited knowledge of animals’ reactions to the death of a group member. This is particularly true of responses to dead adults, as most reports describe the responses of mothers to dead infants. Here, we describe in detail and provide video evidence of the behavioral responses of a group of free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) immediately after the death of a mid-ranking adult male as a result of a fatal attack. High-ranking male members of the group, suspected to have carried out the attack, dragged and bit the dead body, exhibiting a rate of aggression 20 times greater than baseline levels. Lower-ranking individuals approached and inspected the body by looking closely, smelling, and grooming the fur. There was inconclusive evidence that these rhesus macaques found the death of a conspecific stressful: Levels of grooming between group members after the fatal attack were significantly higher than baseline levels, and higher than levels of grooming after nonfatal attacks. However, when grooming levels were adjusted based on the assumption that individuals positioned close to the body, i.e., those visible to researchers, were more likely to be engaged in grooming than those positioned farther away, this difference from baseline was no longer significant. The rate of self-directed behaviors after the fatal attack was also not different from baseline. Many of the behaviors we observed directed toward the body (aggression, inspection) have been previously reported in chimpanzees and geladas, and are similar to reactions sometimes displayed by humans. As such, this report represents a potentially valuable contribution the nascent field of nonhuman primate thanatology.


Cognition Death Grooming Stress Thanatology 



We thank veterinary pathologist Andres Mejia for performing the necropsy, as well as Nahiri Rivera and the Caribbean Primate Research Center (CPRC) staff. We also thank Jo Setchell and an anonymous reviewer for their help in improving the manuscript. The authors are supported by NIMH grant R01-MH089484. The CPRC is supported by grant 8-P40 OD012217-25 from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) of the National Institutes of Health.

Supplementary material

Supplementary Video

Responses by rhesus macaques to the body of a dead adult male member of their group. High-ranking individuals are seen directing aggression toward the body, while lower-ranking individuals are seen approaching, looking at, and grooming the body. Many group members are seen grooming one another, which may be a potential indicator of elevated stress levels. (MPG 53990 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacqueline S. Buhl
    • 1
  • Bonn Aure
    • 1
  • Angelina Ruiz-Lambides
    • 1
  • Janis Gonzalez-Martinez
    • 1
  • Michael L. Platt
    • 2
  • Lauren J. N. Brent
    • 3
  1. 1.Caribbean Primate Research CenterUniversity of Puerto RicoPunta SantiagoPuerto Rico
  2. 2.Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Departments of Neurobiology, Evolutionary Anthropology, and Psychology & NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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