It’s widely believed that lemmings commit mass suicide by leaping to their deaths from cliffs. In fact, this is a myth brought about by the nature of lemmings’ mass migration and bizarrely popularized by a Disney movie from the 50s. But are other animals capable of intentionally killing themselves? Do animals even understand mortality? The issue has divided commenters over the years, so we’ve asked animal behaviour experts, biologists and animal rights activists to find out the truth.



Marc Bekoff

Former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, and Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. Author of numerous essays and books on animal cognition and emotion:

I’m often asked if nonhuman animals commit suicide. My answer is that there are some interesting observations of animals seemingly taking their own lives in situations when one might expect a human to take his or her own life. For example, it’s been suggested that whales intentionally beach themselves to end their lives, highly stressed elephants step on their trunks or jump over a cliff to end prolonged pain, and cats stressed out by earthquakes kill themselves

Opinions vary from "yes they do" to "perhaps they do" to "no they don't.” Some say animals don't have the same concept of death that we have and don’t know that their lives will end when they do something to stop breathing. I have written about a possible case of a burro committing suicide after her baby died. I think it’s too early to make any definite statements about whether animals commit suicide but this does not mean they don’t grieve and mourn the loss of family and friends. As some of my colleagues and I have stressed, we must pay attention to stories and hope they will stimulate more research in a given area.

As captured in several documentaries and studies, elephants grieve, experience lifelong trauma, and even try to bury the dead.

Source: National Geographic, Al Jazeera


Nathan Runkle

Animal rights advocate and president of Mercy for Animals

Several insect species commit suicide in order to save their family members from predators or other threats. The answer is more controversial when it comes to mammals and other animals, however. While it’s impossible to know the intentions of animals who have seemingly taken their own lives, cases of apparent suicide do exist—animals grieving for a human or non-human companion sometimes refuse to eat to the point of starvation, for example.

What is clear to me—and to anyone who has visited a factory farm or who simply shares her life with a dog or cat—is that animals can and do become severely depressed (and exhibit signs of other mental illness) when denied basic freedoms or deprived of social interaction, physical space, and proper care. Science supports this notion as well. I do not doubt that many of the animals imprisoned on factory farms would choose death over the miserable lives they lead if they could.

Animals with the longest lifespans:

Ocean Quahog  400 years

Bowhead Whale 211 years

Rougheye Rockfish 205 years

Red Sea Urchin 200 years

Galapagos Tortoise 177 years

Shortraker Rockfish 157 years

Lake Sturgeon 152 years

Aldabra Giant Tortoise 152 years

Orange Roughy 149 years

Warty Oreo 140 years


Rosie Barclay

Clinical animal behaviourist (website)

There are anecdotal stories of companion animals killing themselves over the loss of an owner or animal close to them – but they are stories. There is no evidence to suggest that our pets choose to take their own lives. To do this they would need to be able to understand the concept of death, what it would mean to die and how to achieve this and their brains are unlikely to be capable of this type of sophisticated thinking.  However, we do know our pets show basic emotions including anger, fear and happiness so can assume they feel something akin to sadness if an owner leaves them and happiness when they return.  Thus an owner not returning may lead to an increase in stress that might cause ongoing medical issues so our pets need to be carefully managed and cared for during this time.

In 2005, the BBC reported a case in which 1,500 Turkish sheep jumped en mass off a 15 meter cliff. The bodies of 400 dead sheep cusioned the fall of the others.

Source: BBC News


Sasha R. X.
Dall PhD

Centre for Ecology & Conservation, University of Exeter; areas of research include how animals cope with the unexpected opportunities and dangers they face in their day-to-day lives

There are many examples of “suicide” in a range of species, which usually involves sacrifice for the sake of relatives or future relatives. There are a number of spiders in which the females sit with their brood as they hatch and offer their bodies up as a first meal. Some male praying mantises offer their bodies up as nuptial gifts for their lovers to snack on as they mate – they have an extra brain in their thorax (“chest”) that allows them to continue to mate as their heads are eaten. Bees and ants are famous for sacrificing their lives for their colonies – in the case of honey bees they disembowel themselves when they sting intruders in the defence of their queen. This kind of sacrifice is rarer in vertebrates but it still happens in defence of young or other relatives – many ground nesting birds will lure predators away from their nests by acting injured even when they end up being eaten.  

There are also examples of individuals being coerced by parasites into sacrificing themselves so the parasite can infect their target predatory host; there’s a microbial parasite of cats that rewires rat brains to make them attracted – even sexually aroused – by cat urine! We also know that human animals kill themselves for a wide variety of reasons. So, yes, animals can definitely kill themselves.

The tiny jellyfish Turritopsis nutricula is believed to be potentially "immortal" because it can repeatedly revert through the stages of peuberty. Its body, however, decomposes over time.

Source: Deep Sea News


Dr. David Sands

Animal Psychologist, Canine and Feline Behaviour Association (FCFBA)

Animals cannot commit suicide because they cannot premeditate.

Everything connected to behaviour is innate or learned. We have frontal lobes to our brain for higher cognition.


ILLUSTRATION:  Nikita Treptsov additional reporting: Loney Abrams.
Additional sources: National Geographic, Al Jazeera, BBC News, Deep Sea News