By Jessica Zhou ’22

Human praise themselves as the most advanced animal, but sometimes, when facing the tragedy of our own compatriots, they do not perform as well as those seemingly inferior animals.

 Near the Mediterranean in 2016, scientists discovered that an adult striped dolphin kept approaching, pushing, and rotating the body of a female conspecific in the sea, and this process had lasted for more than an hour. 

Giovanni Bearzi, a whale biologist at the Center for Dolphin Biology and Conservation in Italy, and his colleagues from other institutions analyzed 78 records from 1970 to 2016 – the response of whales after the death of their conspecific, including 20 of the 88 existing cetaceans(whale and dolphin). They found that dolphins have the highest rate of awaring the death conspecifics, accounting for 92.3% of all records. Besides, their attendance index was 18 times higher than the average of all other cetaceans.

 Scientists have long been concerned about how animals respond to death from behavioral, physiological, and psychological aspects. In fact, complex emotions are not human patents. Chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants are known to have more complex social structures, where they show grief after their relatives die. However, scientists still don’t know if other animals feels sad at similar situations. 

So what are the factors that trigger this response? Scientists of this behavioral study stated that it might be related to their “social brains,” the acquired social activities that have a positive impact on the complexity of the brain. Of all the cetaceans that responded to death conspecifics, 75% (N = 28) of them were adult females who response to dead pups or juvenile offspring since the dead individuals were most likely their offspring. Obviously, they have a matriarchal society where adult females and their offspring live together for a long time so that the social relationship between them is more intimate.

 But we do not know if dolphins or whales are actually sad since proving grief is a complex process that requires detailed data and records. In cetaceans, observed behavioral responses to dead conspecifics shows a strong attachment, making it difficult to “let go”. Also, It is possible that individuals just do not recognize or accept the fact that their offspring or relatives have died, which may be related to grief. However, there is no such detailed record of cetaceans. Therefore, Bearzi and his colleagues will then monitor the dolphins and whales who have lost their loved ones under the water and use a drone to collect the stomata spray in order to analyze their hormonal changes.

 In brief, the response to dead conspecifics is an evolutionarily adaption. Due to the fact that an individual is potentially salvable, the reaction of interacting with the dead body can be partially understood as an attempt to resurrect and protect their offspring or relatives. Nevertheless, in some cases, this behavior have disadvantage, in which lead to the spread of diseases by long-term carrying a decaying corpse.

 Accordingly, both humans and animals are products of evolution, let alone the “social brains” of human far exceeds the other animals. Learning from how dolphins react, the ignorance of the death of conspecifics would not take place in the ordinary course of events in human societies.

Bearzi, G., Kerem, D., & Furey, N.B. (2018, May). Whale and dolphin behavioural responses to dead conspecifics. Zoology (Jena, Germany), 128(1873-2720), 1-15.