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Dolphins Mourn Their Dead: More Evidence of Death Rituals

Feb 02, 2015 06:57 PM EST
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We have long known that great apes can empathize and orphaned elephants can mourn. Now new research has revealed that dolphins practice what seems like ritualistic behavior on the advent of a death in the pod, supporting grieving members and even holding what seem like wakes for deceased calves.

A study recently published in the journal Acta Ethologica details how a team of Portuguese marine biologists assessed two recorded instances in which Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) partook in what appeared to be ritualistic mourning.

The first instance, which was recorded by a tourist boat operator not involved in the study, showed four adult dolphins supporting the body of a dead calf near the water's surface with their heads and backs. This lasted for about 30 minutes before, all of the dolphins slipped away, leaving the calf to the ocean's currents.

In the second event, this time seen by researchers, a single adult - presumably the mother - was supporting her deceased calf at the surface for a similar duration before leaving.

One might argue that perhaps these dolphins don't know the calf is dead, and may be simply trying to support an ill and struggling member of the pod. After all, dolphins have long been known to be exceptionally intelligent and communal animals, caring and supporting one another in times of hardship.

However, Filipe Alves, who helped lead the analysis, recently told Wired that this behavior is not exclusive to Atlantic dolphins.

"There are records of other dolphin species carrying carcasses for several days, even after they begin to decompose," he explained.

These animals, it is argued, are certainly intelligent enough to tell the difference between dead and alive, so this behavior may not be supportive, but rather a ritualistic form of mourning, like a wake or funeral. How long the deceased body is carried may vary simply be based on the 'traditions' of that pod.

Still, it should be noted that Alves and his colleagues are hesitant to use the terms "grieve" or "mourn" in their study, instead calling it "nurturant behavior." This general term encompasses intriguing behavioral phenomena of all kinds (such as adopting a baby from another species), and is most commonly associated with intelligent communal animals.

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