Staring death in the face: Chimpanzees are drawn to skulls of their own species

A chimpanzee named Ayumu participates in an eye-tracking session in an experimental booth.

Enlarge / A chimpanzee named Ayumu participates in an eye-tracking session in an experimental booth. (credit: A. Goncalves et al., 2022)

Swiss primatologist Christophe Boesch once commented on a picture of a chimpanzee skull, pondering, “What goes on in the chimpanzee’s mind when they see such a sight in the forest?” We might not yet be able to suss out what chimps are thinking regarding their own mortality, but they do show a strong preference for the faces and skulls of their fellow chimps, according to a recent paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. They share this attraction to faces with humans, and the recognition of chimp skulls may be a form of face pareidolia (the ability to perceive faces in inanimate objects).

Chimpanzees are known to share some unusual traits with elephants, including being capable of recognizing themselves in the mirror and showing interest in injured or deceased members of their own species. In fact, elephants have been observed showing interest not just in elephant corpses, but in bones and tusks. It has also been suggested that elephants “visit” the bones of their deceased relatives.

A 2006 study of African elephants conducted by scientists at the University of Sussex found that the elephants showed more interest in the skulls (or tusks) of their own species than the skulls of other animals (such as a buffalo or rhinoceros). However, the study found no evidence that the elephants could recognize the remains of close kin, concluding that this observed behavior is due simply to their general attraction for elephant remains.

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