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10 Animals That Mourn and Grieve

Walking african elephants mother and baby (Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya). Image via Depositphotos

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The concept of grief is one of the most profound and deeply felt experiences in the human condition. It is also often associated with rituals and emotional weight and a multifaceted response to loss. The capacity for such depth of feeling is often considered a uniquely human trait. However, as scientific inquiry broadens and deepens, it is revealing that many animals may indeed experience their own forms of grief and mourning.

Grief in animals is not just a matter of observable behaviors. It is also an indicator of the cognitive and emotional complexities that these creatures possess. Mourning behaviors suggest a level of self-awareness and attachment: an understanding that an individual who was once a part of their lives is now gone and an emotional response to that absence. 

In exploring the mourning rituals and behaviors of various animals, we not only gain insight into the emotional spectrum of these creatures but also challenge the long-held notion that complex emotions like grief are exclusive to humankind. In this article we explore how ten different animals mourn and grieve, offering a glimpse into the complex emotions animals can experience.

1. Elephants

African elephants. Image via Depositphotos.

Elephants are often recognized for their complex social behaviours and high intelligence, which extend to their responses to death. When an elephant dies, its herd members engage in what appears to be a mourning process. They have been observed using their trunks to gently touch the body. They often remain with the deceased for hours or even days. These tactile interactions suggest a recognition and exploration of death. Herds will sometimes form a protective circle around the fallen, like a silent vigil.

Remarkably, elephants demonstrate a form of remembrance for their dead. They frequently visit the bones of their deceased, touching and smelling them. This behaviour is indicative of their long-term memory and emotional processing capabilities. The size of an elephant’s hippocampus, a brain region pivotal for memory and emotion, is larger than in many mammals. This may explain their ability to display these complex grief behaviours.

You may like this: Watch As Elephants Mourn the Tragic Loss Of Matriarch Mother

2. Dolphins

Spinner Dolphin
Family of Spinner dolphins in tropical ocean with sunlight. Image via Depositphotos

Dolphins are another animal that mourns and grieves the loss of a family member. Dolphins display distinct mourning behaviours that reflect their social complexity and cognitive abilities. In the event of a pod member’s death, they are often seen engaging in what is described as epimeletic behaviour, pushing the lifeless body to the water’s surface. This may indicate an understanding of the importance of the surface for breathing. This action can persist over several days, with dolphins taking turns to keep the body afloat. This suggests a shared recognition of the death within the pod. Such behaviours are not fleeting; they can disrupt normal activities, indicating the significance of the loss to the group. 

Dolphins’ sophisticated social structures are characterized by strong interpersonal connections, which are likely a factor in their communal response to death. Their high intelligence is also demonstrated in their problem-solving skills, complex communication, and ability to form intricate social networks, all of which may contribute to their expressions of grief.

3. Chimpanzees

Chimpanzee staring up at the treetops. Image by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

Chimpanzees exhibit grief with remarkable similarity to human behaviours, underlining the close genetic relationship we share. When confronted with the death of a group member, chimpanzees often display subdued behaviour and a decrease in appetite. This is indicative of a mourning process. Particularly striking is the behaviour of mothers with deceased offspring; they may carry their lifeless young for extended periods, demonstrating difficulty in parting with them. This behaviour suggests a deep emotional bond and perhaps a lack of immediate recognition or acceptance of death. 

The fact that chimpanzees share approximately 98.7% of their DNA with humans is reflected not only in their physical traits but also in their cognitive and emotional capacities. Their responses to death are complex and multifaceted. It encompasses visible signs of distress and altered daily routines, which are profound indicators of their sentience and depth of social bonds.

4. Gorillas

Gorilla Image by naticastillog via Depositphotos

Gorillas exhibit mourning behaviors that suggest a deep understanding of loss within their social groups. When faced with the death of a fellow gorilla, they have been observed participating in vigil-like behavior, sitting with the deceased for extended periods. This may include gentle prodding or attempts to rouse the dead. These actions could indicate a form of denial or hope for revival. Maternal grief is particularly poignant; female gorillas sometimes carry their dead infants for days, mirroring the mourning practices seen in chimpanzees. This points to the strong maternal attachment that extends beyond the infant’s life. 

The depth of these social bonds is most evident in silverback gorillas, the leaders who are integral to the cohesion and protection of their groups. Their role in the group dynamics reinforces the significance of their responses to death.

5. Magpies

Magpie, Pica pica, single bird in flight. Image via Depositphotos

Magpies, belonging to the corvid family known for their intelligence, have been noted for their funeral-like behavior. Upon encountering a deceased magpie, individuals will vocalize, which attracts others to the location of the dead bird. The gathering that ensues involves magpies interacting with the body, often bringing and placing twigs or grass nearby. While the purpose of this behavior is not fully understood, it resembles a collective acknowledgment of death and may serve a social function within the magpie community. 

This behavior is indicative of their complex social structures and cognitive abilities. A notable fact about magpies is their demonstrated ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. This trait is shared with only a few other animal species, which is considered a marker of self-awareness and advanced cognitive function. This self-recognition capability may be related to their apparent recognition of death and the significance they seem to attribute to the deceased.

6. Giraffes

Image via Depositphotos

Giraffes have shown behaviours in response to death that indicate a form of mourning. They often stand vigil over the bodies of deceased herd members, remaining in place for hours, sometimes even days. This behaviour suggests a recognition of the death and a reluctance to leave the fallen member behind, pointing to the strong social connections within the herd. Maternal grief is also evident in giraffes. Mothers whose calves have died frequently visit the location of their passing, a poignant display of enduring attachment. These visits can continue over several days, emphasizing the bond between mother and calf. 

In addition to their social behaviours, giraffes possess a sophisticated means of communication. They utilize infrasound, which is inaudible to humans, to communicate across vast distances on the savanna. This ability to communicate subtly and over long ranges may also play a role in how they respond collectively to the loss of a herd member.

7. Sea Lions

sea lion
California sea lion this female was hauled out and sunning itself just south of that location. Image via Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sealions are another animal that mourn and grieve. Mother sea lions exhibit a deeply emotional response to the loss of their pups. When a pup dies, the mother may vocalize extended, mournful calls. This can be interpreted as a form of searching or calling out for the missing young. This auditory display of grief suggests a depth of maternal bond and difficulty in accepting the pup’s death. Observations have also recorded mothers nuzzling their deceased pups, and engaging in behaviours typically associated with nurturing and protection.

These actions not only highlight the strength of the mother-pup bond but also the broader social nature of sea lions. As highly social mammals, sea lions engage in communal activities such as resting in groups and playful interactions. This may enhance the impact of loss on an individual and the group. The loss of a pup can disrupt these social dynamics, further highlighting the significance of such events within their communities.

8. Cows

A Highland cow on Pupers Hill, in southern Dartmoor, England.. Image via Nilfanion, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cows demonstrate a clear capacity for social bonding and emotional response to loss within their herds. When a cow is separated from a companion or experiences the death of a fellow herd member, it often exhibits signs of stress, such as increased heart rate, agitation, and vocalizations like bellowing. These vocal and physical responses are indicative of the cow’s recognition of the absence and its discomfort with the change in its social environment. The distress calls may serve to communicate their discomfort or attempt to re-establish contact with the missing individual. 

The depth of these social connections is further evidenced by cows’ long-term memory. This allows them to remember and recognize individual faces and experiences for years, suggesting that their reactions to separation or death may be rooted in remembered relationships. This memory capacity reinforces the understanding that cows are not only socially complex but also emotionally nuanced animals.

9. Dogs

dog in garden
Image via Depositphotos

Dogs exhibit unmistakable signs of grief that reflect the deep bond they share with their human companions and animal cohorts. When faced with the loss of a familiar and beloved presence, dogs may display a range of behaviors that signal their distress and mourning. A marked lethargy can overtake their usual vivacity, and a disinterest in food may become apparent. Some dogs may vocalize their sorrow through howling, a primal and poignant expression of their longing and solitude. 

These behaviors not only signify the emotional pain of separation but also the profound interspecies connection that has been fostered over more than 20,000 years of domestication.

10. Ravens

Known for their playful antics and curiosity, ravens have captivated humans for centuries, inspiring myths, legends, and artistic interpretations across cultures. Image by Cristina Glebova via Unsplash

Ravens, with their notable intelligence, engage in behaviours around their deceased that have captivated and puzzled observers. These birds often congregate around a fallen comrade, participating in what appears to be a communal recognition of death. They may probe the body with their beaks and issue loud calls. This can be interpreted as a form of tribute or offering. While the exact reasons behind these actions remain elusive to scientists, they suggest a social or cognitive process at play, acknowledging the loss in a manner that is not purely instinctual. 

Ravens’ ability to use tools and solve complex problems points to a high level of cognitive functioning, which may be related to their complex reactions to death. Their interactions with the dead go beyond mere curiosity and hint at an understanding of mortality and the significance of the individual within the social structure of their species.


African elephants. Image via Depositphotos.

The ten species highlighted here represent just a fraction of the animal kingdom. However, they offer profound insights into the emotional capacities of non-human beings. From the gentle giants of the savannah to the intelligent corvids of the skies, each species adds to our understanding of animal sentience and sociality.

These observations compel us to reconsider the depth and scope of animal emotions. They suggest that grief is not a solitary human fortress but a shared house with many rooms, occupied by a multitude of species, each expressing loss in ways that are both uniquely their own and strikingly familiar. The behaviors we witness in these animals are not mere instincts but are indicative of complex emotional states, informed by memory, social connection, and perhaps even an understanding of mortality.

In recognizing the capacity for grief in animals we foster deeper empathy for all living beings. As we continue to explore the rich emotional lives of animals, we not only expand our scientific knowledge but also enrich our moral and ethical discourse, fostering a more compassionate relationship with the living world around us.

Thank you for following along – “Animals That Mourn and Grieve

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Monkey sitting on a tree branch eating peanuts in India. Image via Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GFDL 1.2 , via Wikimedia Commons

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