Dolphin funeral? Adult dolphin "carries calf around for days," but is it grieving?

Participants on a "Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari" off the coast at Dana Point, CA (I've been on a few of them, they're great) witnessed an emotionally moving form of bottlenose dolphin behavior this week: a deceased dolphin calf was being carried around on the back of an adult bottlenose dolphin. To onlookers, it felt like a kind of funeral procession, in the sea.

"I believe this calf has been dead for many days, possibly weeks," said Captain Dave. "You can see the flesh is decaying. In my nearly twenty years on the water whale watching I have never seen this behavior. Nor have I ever seen anything quite as moving as this mother who refuses to let go of her poor calf."

More video, and background, here.

It'd be interesting to hear how marine biologists explain the science behind this apparent mourning behavior. Because it could also be a tasty fermented treat.

[ via Brian Lam]


  1.  I bet any minute now some cruel marine biologist will pop in and burst everyone’s bubble by explaining that this is some sort of instinctive behavior that is used to attacks fish or something equally un-anthropomorphizing.

    1.  Or the mean marine biologist could do the opposite, and anthropomorphize the dolphin even more by pointing out their ability to have fun, and their penchant to do so by raping and murdering.  Though I think they keep the R&M to other species.  I could be wrong though!  Perhaps this is a rapey-murdery trophy that the adult dolphin is showboating with a victory lap.


    2.  Animals can give us a window on the non-rational elements of our behavior.  At some level, “emotional response” is the name that we give to behaviors that we’d call instinct in animals.  Now anthropomorphizing animal behaviors can be full of pratfalls because different animals have different survival strategies and different behaviors (both learned and instinctual) than we do.  People sometimes regard our penchant for equating nurturing and pair-bonding with love as anthropomorphism, I would say rather that we should look at these behaviors in animals to see what that says about our own non-rational emotional lives.

    3. Maybe we should start by getting rid of the term ‘anthropomorphize’ to describe behaviors which may be common in primates/ mammals/ etc.

      Homo sapiens is not a beautiful and unique snowflake. We’re one part of a continuum of living species that share some traits.  Being human is not magic.

      1. But if we admitted that then we’d have to admit there are traits we consider human in animals.

    4. Because only the human brain, out of billions of years of evolution, is capable of having emotions.

      1.  humans are also the only ones to master the unique skill of straw-maning in arguments.

        Well, humans and the elusive Norwegian troll spider.

  2. Cruel marine biologist here…  Many assumptions were made- that the big dolphin is a female, that the smaller dolphin was part of this pod to begin with, that this small dolphin is the offspring of the big dolphin, that the big dolphin didn’t kill the small one because it has developed a taste for REALLY rotten small dolphins from competing pods, and it’s going to give it another couple days before eating it, etc (yes, dolphins kill one another sometimes).  

    Or, it could really be as described.  No one knows.

    1.  Nobody knows for certain in this instance, but we can at least recognize that this type of behavior has been ascertained with mothers and their dead calves in other cases which makes the mourning hypothesis somewhat more likely in this one.  It would be nice to hear the thread’s resident marine biologist recognize that.  I feel many scientists go too far out of their way to avoid anthropomorphizing.  The mourning behavior has been ascertained, maybe not in this instance, but in others.

  3. If it’s gone in 3 days I think we can then safely assume that this is Dolphin Jesus.  Hallelujah!

  4. This reminds me of a time a bunch of friends and I were on a boat on a large lake (one of the Great Lakes) and noticed a male duck doing what seemed to be attempting to resuscitate his mate.  This went on for about 15 minutes, with all of us marveling at the level of affection and grief being exhibited….until he finally managed to get the dead female duck body turned around just right to start copulating with it.  Boy, did we go silent!

  5. Not sure any marine biologist can, or should try to, explain this behavior from a single observation with no way to do any sort of statistical test of any hypothesis.  Sounds like a recipe for crap science.

  6. Hard to watch, but chimpanzees have similar behavior:

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