Dolphins May Understand Death


Anyone who has heard a cow bawl for her stillborn calf, a goose honk for his lost mate, or a dog whine for her deceased human companion is likely to call it “grief.” However, attributing emotion to non-human creatures is generally labeled “anthropomorphism” because we cannot prove what we are hearing or seeing really fits the words we have for describing it.

Now a study from Italy identifies apparent awareness of death in bottlenose dolphins.†The researchers are careful to avoid claiming what they observe is, in fact, what we understand as human grief, but New Scientist reports, “Taken together with a growing number of reports of cetaceans interacting with dead animals and the discovery that they have specialized neurons linked to empathy and intuition, the Greek study suggests dolphins may have a complex – and even sophisticated – reaction to death.”

Since 2006, the Tethys Research Institute in Milan has been observing dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf of western Greece. †Joan Gonzalvo cites two incidents in which dolphins appeared to be reacting to death. In the first, he and his volunteers saw a mother repeatedly interacting, “sometimes frantically,” with her dead calf. In the second, a pod of dolphins stayed with a dying youngster until it died.

The New Scientist article also links to research done by the Orca Research Trust in Tutukaka, New Zealand.†Ingrid Visser has observed orcas and bottlenose dolphins carrying dead infants and “speculates that the behaviours are a form of grief.”

Scientific caution is important so researchers are reluctant to claim observations such as these prove other species experience human-like emotions. We benefit from the questions they ask, from their probing responses to each otherís conclusions, and from the skepticism that keeps them looking to see if they have considered all contributing factors.

At the same time, our non-human neighbors suffer from our unwillingness to acknowledge their pain, both physical and emotional. We do not have to wait for proof that animals experience what we call joy and grief to treat them with utmost respect and care.

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Photo from cheetah100 via Flickr Creative Commons


W. C
W. C3 months ago

Thank you for the information.

Lisa M
Lisa M8 months ago

Of course they do!

William C
William Cabout a year ago


Taylor Story
Taylor Story3 years ago

Dolphins are very intelligent and compassionate animals. A lot of fisherman in Japan when trying to capture dolphins, will actually maim one of the dolphins in the pod because dolphins never abandon an injured family member. They know what's going on. They know pain and grief.

Mary T.
Mary T4 years ago

Thank you for sharing, dolphins very smart

Silvestr Vetchinin

Why do humans find it so threatening to believe that animals have any emotions or feel pain or happiness? Perhaps they don't want to believe this so that they can continue to kill and torture them without having to feel guilty for their actions.

Magdika Cecilia Perez

of course they understand death .... it's bizzare / astounding to suggest or think they don't!

.4 years ago

human and intelligent creatures,it is natural they grieve,thank you for sharing

Elena B.
Elena Bonati4 years ago

Dolphins are wonderful creatures. Thanks for sharing.

katarzyna phillips

interesting article.

i'd be interested in how to explain why elephants act the way they do around their dead and dying, revisiting the site over and over again.

also, i was watching a video through care2 the other day, a dog finally seeing it's owner after she's been afghanistan with the army. as the dog on the video was whimpering, my dog who was next to me but not facing me or the laptop, quickly turned round and shoved his face into my lap and starting making the exact type of noise as the dog on the video. he wouldn't leave me until it was over and even then, i had to reassure him before he settled down again. make what you will of that!