Gelada baboon mothers have been observed to carry their deceased infants for extremely varied amounts of time – less than an hour to over forty-eight days.
The mother who carried her infant for the longest period continued to do so long after most of the flesh had rotted away from its skull.
As with chimpanzee mothers, geladas continue the grooming process with their infants, and other group members show marked interest despite the smell of the decaying corpses.
When gelada mothers carry their babies for extremely long periods of time, they no longer use the same carrying methods that were used when the babies were alive.
Instead of carrying them dorsally or ventrally, long deceased babies are carried with one hand or in the mouth.
This is quite important, as it signifies that there must be a cognitive understanding that the babies are not alive, yet the mothers continue to keep them close.
In the case of the mother who kept her deceased infant for forty-eight days, copulation had been resumed and approximately two weeks before she abandoned the corpse. She repeatedly copulated while continuing to clutch the dead baby in her hand.
Although it’s impossible to understand the cognitive state of this female, there is no one way that any individual mother may react to the death of her child.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book “Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom“