Life And Death Issues

Life and death issues always get our complete attention. We worry about why someone dies suddenly, could it be our turn next? Are we seeing the start of a pandemic or is there something bad in the drinking water? Whatever the reason, we want to know why. We want an autopsy and the coroner to sign off on the report so we can take appropriate action.

 In addition, we may want to mourn our loss or express our sympathy to others. Humans are not unique in this respect. It’s no surprise that non-human primates react to the death of a close relative, but the empathy goes wider. Whales and dolphins can be very supportive, giraffes  (1) and elephants (2) show great concern over the loss of an offspring.

It is easy to accept that mammals in general are sensitive creatures as we are of the same taxa. It might not help to ponder on that too deeply if we have the body parts on our dinner plate.

We are also “discovering” that birds are very intelligent, so it should come as no surprise that they too get concerned over life and death issues when they raise their ugly head within their group. The Western scrub-jay is the latest to have their concerns discussed. Iglesias et al from UC Davis have documented their behavior recently (3, 4), and carried out an experimental program to clarify their views when it comes to finding one of their flock dead on the ground.

What happens is that the call goes out for the locals to gather and make note of what has happened. The calls include the alarm calls that they use when there are predatory thugs like Horned Owls around and they go off their foraging program for a day or so. They get back to foraging normally in a couple of days as they assume the danger has past.

They ignore imitation dead jays. They know when they are looking at the real thing. A stuffed dead jay is not considered to be a life and death issue. How much of the concern is for the deceased and how much is for the potential danger that they may be in is not clear, but the thought that it could be me next is clearly a top priority as they go through their ritual.

  3. T.L Iglesias, R. McElreath and G.L. Patricelli, Animal Behaviour, 2012,

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