Dear Dr. Fringe, are animals religious?
As far as most scientists can tell, probably not. That being said, some animals have displayed strange behaviors that some may attribute to spirituality, and others more to awe, or wonder.
Take chimpanzees, for example. Jane Goodall, the infamous primate researcher, once saw a group of chimpanzees dancing and throwing rocks in front of a waterfall. The way they reacted to the natural formation led her to believe that the primates were possibly in awe of the waterfall. She even went as far as to say that they were displaying spiritual behaviors akin to what a human may experience.
This isn’t the only time chimpanzees have been spotted displaying seemingly odd, ritualistic behavior. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig observed chimpanzees at four sites in West Africa repeatedly gathering rocks near trees. They would then take those rocks and throw them at the nearby tree. While they did so, they appeared to be very elated, and were quite vocal; it was obvious they were taking pleasure in the activity.
When word got around of this peculiar behavior, some scientists argued that this was indicative of ritualistic behavior. Speculation arose surrounding the idea that perhaps these trees were sacred to this particular population of primates, but others argue that it could simply be a sexual display of some sort, or that they simply enjoyed throwing rocks at trees.
Taking things a little further along the evolutionary tree, ritualistic behavior has also been spotted in elephants, whales, and even magpies, though theirs is seemingly focused on death.
In the case of elephants, they are often seen returning to their dead in complete silence, touching and smelling the carcasses endearingly in areas like the tusks and jaws. Some elephants have even been spotted taking the tusks after the remains have decomposed and bringing it with them for as long as half a mile. In one peculiar case, George Adamson, a Kenyan conservationist, shot a male elephant that was attacking an official in his own garden. The locals moved the carcass and butchered it for meat. That very same night, a group of elephants took the shoulder blade and leg bone and returned it to the exact spot the elephant had died.
As for the whale population, in a particularly shocking display of motherly affection, a whale mother was once observed carrying a dead calf for over two weeks. She finally let go of the corpse nearly 1000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast.
As if birds weren’t intelligent enough, magpies, a species of bird found in temperate regions of Europe, Asia, western North America, Australia, and Tibet, have been observed engaging in what one may assume to be a funeral-like practice. Animal behavior expert Dr Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, personally saw four magpies near the carcass of a dead magpie. They pecked at it much like elephants touch their deceased, and even brought grass back to the dead body, then waited, much like humans do.
As intriguing as these examples are, to jump to the conclusion that these animals were engaging in spiritual behavior is certainly a far jump to a steep conclusion; belief in a religion is even further a leap.