Social relationships and caregiving behavior between recently orphaned chimpanzee siblings


When their mothers die, chimpanzees often adopt younger vulnerable siblings who survive with their care. This phenomenon has been widely reported, but few studies provide details regarding how sibling relationships change immediately following the deaths of their mothers. A disease outbreak that killed several females at Ngogo in Kibale National Park, Uganda, furnished an opportunity to document how maternal death influenced the social relationships of siblings. We describe social interactions between four adolescent and young adult males and their younger immature maternal siblings 9 months before and 8 months after their mothers died. We also show how the behavior of individuals in the four recently orphaned sibling pairs contrasts to the behavior displayed by chimpanzees in 30 sibling pairs whose mothers were alive. Following the death of their mothers, siblings increased the amount of time they associated, maintained spatial proximity, groomed, reassured, and consoled each other. During travel, younger orphans followed their older siblings, who frequently looked back and waited for them. Both siblings showed distress when separated, and older siblings demonstrated heightened vigilance in dangerous situations. Chimpanzees who were recently orphaned interacted in the preceding ways considerably more than did siblings whose mothers were alive. These findings suggest that siblings provide each other support after maternal loss. Further research is needed to determine whether this support buffers grief and trauma in the immediate aftermath of maternal loss and whether sibling support decreases the probability that orphans will suffer long-term consequences of losing a mother if they survive.
Last updated on 09/25/2020