Are Dolphins Aware of Their Own Mortality?

Ever since Flipper hit T.V. Land, many of us humans have felt a connection with cetaceans, especially dolphins. Likely, it’s their playfulness and frozen grins that make us anthropomorphize them so much.

Or maybe it’s because some researchers have asserted that dolphins may utilize more of their gray brain matter than humans do (in which case, dolphins have likely long known that people are pretty hung up on the mortality issue and are dumbfounded that we would be so ridiculous as to even ask if dolphins know they will some day die).

People tweet news stories about whales freed from fishing nets nuzzling their rescuers in thanks. We read stories from around the globe about dolphins encircling swimmers to protect them from shark attack.

And my dad once met a dolphin in the wild who discovered that someone in his snorkel group had an abdominal tumor. The dolphin scanned the man up and down and began making lots of noise and pointing its snout toward his tummy. After the vacation, ultrasound discovered a mass there.

Maybe it’s just that we people are often fascinated by this problem of other minds, and animal minds are all the more compelling to us given that we have such trouble bridging communication gaps within our own species. Understanding species that lack the power of speech as we know it offers the ultimate challenge in transcending the space that divides living individuals from one another. I suppose the gray matter theory and the inexplicable stories we read (and sometimes experience firsthand) make dolphins seem an especially worthy exploration.

To be fair, dolphins aren’t the pure Tibetan monk-like innocents that some of these stories and experiences suggest. Dolphins have been observed bullying and sometimes even randomly killing lone porpoises and other dolphins. (Maybe dolphins are just like people – highly complicated and unpredictable. And what could be more intriguing than uncovering shared experience between ourselves and a creature so physically different from us?)

The latest piece I’ve found about dolphin emotional/instinctual complexity is this painful-to-watch video. It, like much other research, suggests that dolphins feel loss, that they even mourn.

Probably, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions about the way we interpret what we see. However, we can establish that this dolphin female was not apathetic about her baby calf, likely killed by a boat propeller.

She keeps lifting her calf’s body out of the water. Was she trying to show us what we have done? Did she care about the nearby boat and human presence at all? What does it mean for a dolphin to care vs. for a human to?

We may never know the specifics of that mother’s experience until we can read minds, and I feel crass & voyeuristic observing this animal’s seeming grief through such an abstracting vehicle as online video posts.

Still, at least this observation inspires me to keep researching and to keep asking: what are we seeing? Do dolphins mourn? Do they feel sympathy? Do they try to communicate with us, even when they’re not just busking for tour boat tuna treats? If answers to these questions are affirmative for dolphins, is the same true for other non-human species?

Start or continue your own questions and journey by reading this valuable article from Huffington Post (I welcome your thoughts and reactions):

Article Excerpt:

Researchers have observed, however, that dolphins do mourn and grieve for their dead. Many studies have been focused on researching the traits and intelligence of dolphins. Neuroscientist Lori Marino told the Associated Press last month that although their brain looks different from a human’s, “the more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of when we think of a person.”
Again, if you have other research on dolphin awareness and intelligence or you have a stance on this article, please post it in the comments section for this blog. Thanks for reading, caring, and sharing.


This entry was published on July 18, 2012 at 10:02 pm and is filed under Ocean Conservation. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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