An astonishing paper has chronicled the moment that a female macaque ate her dead, mummified baby at an animal sanctuary in Italy. Yes, it is as gross as it sounds. This article does get a bit gory.
The Tonkean macaque is called Evalyne, and resides at Parco Faunistico di Piano dell'Abatino in Italy. A paper in the journal Primates, led by Arianna De Marco from Fondazione Ethoikos, observed the mother’s behavior after her newborn infant died after just four days.
The results were shocking. First, the macaque mourned for two days, screaming at her own reflection in the enclosure’s plastic door, before she began to groom and carry the corpse of her dead baby.
“[D]espite the noticeable odor from the corpse, she groomed and licked it regularly, paying attention mainly to the face,” the authors wrote in their paper.
After eight days, the corpse became mummified – which means it had dried out. Six days later, its skull fell off, but Evalyne continued to look after the corpse, placing it on her belly and grooming it. She frequently carried it in a hand or in her mouth.
“The prolonged transport would be testimony to the mother's attachment to her infant,” De Marco told IFLScience.
Then things got really weird. On the 19th day, Evalyne was first seen gnawing on the dried flesh of the corpse and eating parts of it. This is the first time a Tonkean macaque has ever been seen eating its dead baby, although National Geographic notes the behavior has been seen at least once before in macaque species.
By the 22nd day, the corpse of the baby had fully disintegrated, although Evalyne still kept part of the remains with her in her mouth or hand most of the time. The last time she was seen with part of the corpse, possibly an arm or leg bone, was on the 25th day.
The authors don’t quite know what triggered this behavior, but it may have been because the newborn lived for a few days before dying.
“The mother-offspring relationship is arguably the closest social bond in primates, and such care may be viewed as a continuation of maternal behavior that results from the hormonal state of the female and/or her attachment to her infant,” said De Marco.
This does not mean that monkeys have a concept of death, but the lack of response from the newborn after it had been alive may have led to the mother’s distress. By sticking her fingers or tongue in the dead baby’s mouth, the mother may have been trying to induce a suckling response.
As for why she began eating it, that is a mystery. But it’s possible that by the time cannibalism began, “the mother had lost any clear representation of what the mummified remains of her infant were.”
De Marco said it was not unnerving to watch, but rather “it was touching and interesting at the same time.”