Prescott boy captures rare look at javelinas mourning the loss of one of their own

- A fourth-grade student from Prescott is getting worldwide attention for something he captured on camera, right in his own backyard.

Dante de Kort set up his camera, and recorded javelinas mourning a member of the herd that had died.  It was something that has never been documented before, and researchers are calling it an "amazing discovery".

When Dante, 9, set up a camera in the forest behind his family's home in Prescott last January, he had no idea what he would capture would go on to garner worldwide attention.

"It was just above that tree right there," said Dante. The "it" Dante was talking about was a dead javelina. Like any curious boy, Dante, then 8, wanted to use the camera trap his grandparents gave him to document the circle of life, for his elementary school science fair project.

"So then, I was really excited about my science fair project being about this," said Dante. "I wanted it to be about when will the predators get the dead javelina."

However, when Dante went back daily to check what the camera had recorded, he was in for a surprise.

"They were trying to nudge it, biting it," said Dante. "They were nuzzling it."

In a series of 100 videos, the camera caught members of the female javelina's family coming back to the spot, every day, for 10 days. The family members came in pairs and alone, and sometimes even sleeping next to it with their bodies touching. At one point, the javelinas even chased away coyotes, even though the javelinas were outnumbered by two to five.

At first, Dante was annoyed his project had "gone awry".

"I got all mad," said Dante. "I was yelling and saying they were ruining my science fair project because they were chasing away the predators."

Dante, however, decided to use the footage for his project anyway, and it just so happens Mariana Altrichter, a teacher at Prescott College and someone who has studied this type of javelina, known as a "Collared Peccary" extensively, was at the science fair.

Altrichter knew right away what Dante captured was groundbreaking.

"I noticed very quickly that this was something like a novelty," said Altrichter. "I've never read anything about these animals reacting to death in any particular ways."

Dante had documented the animals mourning the death of a loved one, something animal behavior experts have never been able to do before.

"It is known that animals have feelings and emotions. That's not new," said Altrichter. "What's new is being able to document it in ways that people can see it, and be convinced."

Dante's parents, who encouraged his curiosity for the project, were just as stunned when they found out how valuable the video was for researchers.

"Do you guys have any idea how important this is, what you have captured and studied?" said Antonella de Kort, Dante's mother. "Nobody else has seen this before. I didn't expect it to go national and international, but that was our first inkling that this was something special. This was different."

In November, Dante and Mariana authored a research paper on his discovery for the journal "Ethology", with Dante listed as the first author. 

"What did catch me by surprise, that I did have this much attention on myself at nine and eight years old," said Dante.

Now, Dante's discovery has been highlighted in National Geographic, New Scientist, the Daily Mail, and more interview requests keep coming in.

"Once you look closer and you do study them, you notice that they're not just animals," said Dante. "They're smart, they come back for their dead, they mourn for their dead, and they actually care about each other."

Dante said he has been a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but he's happy his science fair project worked out better than he could have ever hoped. Dante also hopes this will encourage other kids to ask questions, and to always be curious about animals and nature.

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