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A Dolphin “Funeral”?

March 28, 2013

Pete Thomas digs into yet more circumstantial evidence of the impressive dolphin capacity for awareness, thinking, and feeling:

The waters off Dana Point on Tuesday were the scene of what one boater described as a dolphin funeral procession.

The accompanying footage shows a bottlenose dolphin, presumably a mother, carrying her dead calf on her back, while other dolphins followed close by. (Cetaceans have been known to tote dead offspring in what appears to be mourning behavior, but the phenomenon is rarely witnessed.)

The macabre episode revealed that not every mammal sighting is a cause for celebration, and that dolphins, like people, experience the loss of young and deal with that loss in ways that are both sad and touching.

This is not at all the first time that this sort of profound empathy in dolphins has been witnessed:

The most recent evidence comes from Joan Gonzalvo of the Tethys Research Institute, who since 2006 has been observing the bottlenose dolphin population of the Amvrakikos Gulf in the Mediterranean Sea. During one expedition, the researcher and his team witnessed a heartbreaking scene between a mother dolphin and her deceased newborn calf. The mother could be seen repeatedly lifting the corpse to the surface.
“This was repeated over and over again, sometimes frantically, during two days of observation,” said Gonzalvo. “The mother never separated from her calf…. [She] seemed unable to accept the death.”
Gonzalvo experienced a similar scene a year later, when he came across a pod of dolphins that appeared to be assisting a 3-month-old dolphin that was having difficulty swimming.
“The group appeared stressed, swimming erratically,” he said. “Adults were trying to help the dying animal stay afloat, but it kept sinking.”
“My hypothesis is that the sick animal was kept company and given support, and when it died the group had done their job. In this case they had already assumed death would eventually come — they were prepared.”
In the first case, the mother dolphin seemed to be exhibiting grief at her calf’s death, while in the second case the pod of dolphins seemed to show an understanding that death for their pod-mate was imminent. Taken together, the two cases suggest that the dolphins not only experience grief, but also that they may possess some of the higher level concepts entailed by the emotion. In other words, it seems as if they comprehend, and perhaps even contemplate, their own mortality.

If you consider all the elements that go into mourning, and understand what that means in terms of dolphin cognition and emotion, it makes all the other experiences dolphins have in the course of their lives–especially negative experiences at the hands of humans–that much harder to stomach. Their day is coming, though.

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