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Wild monkey comforts dying partner: UK researcher records amazing video

© Bezerra et al., Primates 2014

By Ellie Buchdahl8 May 2014

It was an intimate and deeply moving sight. A male monkey leaving the rest of his brood to care for his dying partner - the first ever proof of an animal other than a human or a chimpanzee showing compassion to another adult in this way.

The scene was recorded on camera by Dr Bruna Bezerra, former UK student at the University of Bristol, where she is now an honorary researcher.

Scroll down for the video!

Bezerra personal images
In the wild: Dr Bruna Bezerra on location in the Atlantic rain Forest (Picture: Bezerra personal images)
 

Researchers, including Bruna, watched as the male marmoset – a small monkey mostly found in South America – went to the female, leaving behind two babies he had been caring for in a tree.

He then lay beside her for the next hour and 48 minutes, cuddling her, sniffing her, and making alarm calls usually reserved for warning others of predators – even though no predators were in the area.

This was a unique event, Bruna said.

‘Wild female common marmoset death has been observed in the literature, but caretaking behaviours of adults have never been reported,’ she said.

‘I did not expect such a reaction from the dominant male. Compassionate-caretaking behaviour towards other adults was thought to be exclusive to humans and chimpanzees.

‘The male's gentle care and attention towards the dominant female left me astounded.’

‘Remarkable behaviour’

Bezerra personal images

Bruna was working in the Brazilian Atlantic Rain Forest on a MSc research project into common marmosets, part of a wider study into the communication of the monkeys in the area.

The researchers had been closely following the same group of 12 marmosets for several years, and had gained an intimate understanding of the relationships between different group members – but none of them predicted what would happen when one of the females fell from a tree, hitting her head against an object on the ground.

‘I always carried a video camera, audio recorder, binoculars and other equipment during my observations, which made it possible to capture this remarkable behaviour on video,’ Bruna said.

‘It is difficult to observe wild primates due to difficulties habituating them, but by the time of the observation, the animals were already habituated to my presence.’

‘Excellent universities, great support’

Bruna did her undergraduate and masters degrees in her home country of Brazil before she joined the University of Bristol.

‘My experience studying in the UK was extremely enjoyable and constructive,’ she said.

‘There are several excellent universities with departments dedicated to the study of animal behaviour and related fields.

‘I had great support from my supervisor, members of the lab and staff at the university.’

Bezerra et al., Primates 2014
Care: It was not known until now that adult marmosets show compassion toward adult partners in this way (Picture: Bezerra et al., Primates 2014)

‘Go for it’

Now a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Bruna hopes she can continue her research – and encourage others too.

‘If you really have a passion for this field of research, don't give up,’ she said.

‘Studying primates quite often demands long hours in the field under very basic conditions and isolation – most of the time there is no internet, electricity, running water or even a proper toilet and it is possible to spend several weeks or months away from home, dedicating yourself to the research.

‘Nevertheless, it is fascinating and a privilege to be able to observe these fascinating creatures, very similar in certain aspects, but at the same time so different from us.

Bezerra personal images
Intimate understanding: The researchers spent months with the tribe so they became used to their presence (Picture: Bezerra personal images)
 

‘I have always been fascinated by animal behaviour and effort is certainly made worthwhile when one gets to see such incredible behaviours.’

And Bruna’s final words of advice?

‘Apply for funding, look for universities that support fieldwork, make contacts, talk to more experienced researchers, listen to your supervisors and go for it.’

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