In July 2012 humans learned a little more about dolphin behavior. Captured on camera for one of the first times, a mother dolphin was spotted in the Guangxi Zhuang region of China performing a mourning ritual in which the mother carries the dead calf against rough sea currents. Little is known about the ritual, which has rarely been witnessed by human eyes. The recent instance witnessed by a boat of tourists consisted of the mother dolphin carrying her dead child, as it slipped 5 times from its mother’s back. The Guanxi Zhuang region is known for its dolphin watching tours.
Researchers have observed dolphins carrying stillborn calves or those that die in infancy. The mother dolphins have been observed to stay with their dead babies for several days. While mourning rituals are rare in the animal kingdom, surprisingly whales, elephants, chimps, and gorillas also display some sort of mourning ritual. Researchers and scientists are very wary to attribute emotions to animals, but the behavior does seem to indicate that dolphins are aware of their mortality and may even contemplate their eventual death. Dolphins are also the only species known to purposefully commit suicide. Dolphins are also highly sociable animals and travel in closely connected pods. They exhibit extreme aggression when their pod is threatened and have been known to protect other species, such as humans.
The mourning ritual is greatly speculated about in the scientific community. Many hypotheses proposed by biologists and dolphin specialists suppose a variety of reasons behind the behavior. Some suppose the mother dolphin is lifting the calf out of water repeatedly as if to help it breathe better. The dolphin is also carrying the calf out into the sea further, as if to escape further dangers found hear shore, such as boats and their deadly propellers. Some even propose that the mother dolphin knows her calf is dead and is performing a sort of burial ritual, laying her calf to rest in deeper waters.
Researcher Joan Gonzalvo of the Tethys Research Institute in Italy has observed similar scenes. He once witnessed a pod of dolphins trying to help a dying calf by lifting it to the surface and swimming around it in a frantic and erratic matter. He states, “My hypothesis is that the sick animal was kept company and given support and when it died the group had done their job.” He assumes that the dolphins knew the baby was dying and they were prepared.
It is terribly ironic and tragic that one of the very boats that carried the tourists out to sea could be responsible for the death of this particular baby calf. The calf has a large gash approximately a foot long visible across its belly. To act on behalf of dolphins that die unnecessarily, please encourage the Chinese government to enact protections for dolphins and ban their killing. The Dolphin Project via Change.org is working to protect dolphins around the world. By partnering with grassroots organizations in Singapore and Thailand they hope to prevent the all too common occurrence of dolphin slaughter. Dolphins are also notoriously captured in many parts of Asia in order to place them in aquariums and circuses and tourist programs. The Dolphin Project tries to end the poor treatment and slaughter of dolphins and also does work to rehabilitate captive dolphins. To sign their petition please visit Change.org-Stop Dolphin Slaughter.
Photo credit: noaa.gov/features/04_resources/images/dolphins.jpg