Good grief! When whales and dolphins mourn the dead

As an inevitable part of nature, death happens to all living things. Despite the certainty of it, coping with death is never easy for anyone. And by anyone, I don’t just mean humans… Some animals, including elephants, apes, and cetaceans, react unusually when a group member passes away. Could these animals be capable of experiencing grief? Could they understand a concept as abstract as death? Learn more about it in this post!

Disclaimer: Some pictures may be disturbing to some readers

A 17 day-long funeral

Tahlequah carrying her dead calf on her back – Credit: Robin Baird

Several species of cetaceans have been observed behaving in ways that suggest they mourn their dead group members. Some dolphin mothers carry around their dead calves on their backs for hours or even days. Captive dolphins sometimes lay motionless on the bottom of their pools after a conspecific blow their last breath. Perhaps the most heartbreaking story is the one of Tahlequah, an orca mother who carried her dead newborn around for an astonishing seventeen days until she finally let it go six feet under (metaphorically speaking – it probably sank a bit deeper (check out our post on what happens to dead whales)).

Big brain time

In a recent study, scientists found that at least 20 species of cetaceans display some form of “post-mortem attentive behavior” (in human societies, we might interpret these as grief). Of the 20 species, most were dolphins rather than whales. Following the “social brain hypothesis,” animals with complex social structures, i.e., dolphins, generally have relatively bigger brains. A big brain relates to more complex feelings and perhaps an understanding of the concept of death, to some extent. Whales and dolphins aren’t the most accessible study subjects, and many of their after-death rituals may go unnoticed (what happens underwater, stays underwater). They remain mysterious, even after decades of research.

Till death do us part

Although in our minds, it makes perfect sense to be upset when a person we know dies, if we think about it evolutionarily speaking, after-death rituals aren’t that logical. Carrying a dead body around for a prolonged time is energetically costly; it’s heavy (baby dolphins are cute, but let’s face it, they aren’t light as a feather); it breaks the streamlined body shape, it stops the hunt for prey, and it just does not make sense.

Then why do dolphin mothers keep carrying and pushing their deceased loved ones? One reason could be that they are trying to rescue the immobile body? Could they think the carcass is simply unconscious, and it still has a chance if they help it breathe at the surface? Altruistic acts like these aren’t uncommon in social species. However, after carrying a body around for seventeen days, surely one would realize that the unmoving and decomposing body will not resurrect from the dead. In that case, post-mortem attentive behavior could be beyond evolutionary explanation and simply be a reflection of the strong bond between a mother and her calf.

So, are cetaceans capable of grief?

Undeniably, there are many similarities in how some cetaceans react to dead conspecifics and how humans deal with the passing away of a loved one. On the other hand, “grieving” is not a ubiquitous event in cetacean societies: many times, when an individual dies, the rest of the pod leaves the body behind and moves on with their lives. Additionally, not to be insensitive, but it wouldn’t be the first time dolphin males attempted necrophilia… So, to say cetaceans behave exactly like grieving humans is taking it a bit too far.

This is not to say that the death of a whale or dolphin does not affect its group members. The problem, however, is that we cannot read the minds of animals, even though we try relentlessly through careful behavioral observations. It certainly looks like they “grieve,” but from a strictly scientific point, some researchers argue we cannot conclude with certainty that they do. On the other hand, some scientists insist that the behaviors we see are convincing evidence of mourning. So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments!

Speak for the dead to protect the living

The notion that cetaceans are capable of grief and that they may have some understanding of death has been used to promote conservation actions in the hopes that attributing human-like behavior and emotions to animals (i.e., anthropomorphism) makes us relate to them more and want to protect them. However, conservation measures should not have to rely on how similar an animal is to humans. Every living being is different: it is the beauty of biodiversity. We should celebrate that uniqueness instead of comparing every living thing to ourselves and our own feelings. Whether we call it post-mortem attentive behavior or grieving, whales, and dolphins have the potential to be undeniably affected by the death of a conspecific. As many cetacean deaths are unfortunately our fault, we owe it to them to protect their lives. Not because they are like us, but because they are different!

Thank you for reading our post about cetaceans grief! Check out our other post on altruism in whales.

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Eline van Aalderink is a recent MSc Marine Biology graduate from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), where she specialised in marine mammal ecology and conservation biology. She is currently working as a marine mammal research assistant/supervisor at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece.

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