Dolphins seem to be all over the news these days. Just last week we told you about a pod of sperm whales who adopted a malformed bottlenose dolphin, and how a dolphin tangled up on a fishing hook asked a deep sea diver for help. Now, according to a study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science, a group of dolphins were seen trying to prevent an ailing companion from drowning by teaming up and propping it up to the surface with their bodies. It's the first time this sort of behavior has ever been documented in dolphins.
Just as a warning, the video above is quite sad, as it does show a dying, drowning dolphin who eventually succumbs to the elements. You may want to avoid the video if you're particularly sensitive to this sort of stuff.
There are many documented accounts of dolphins coming to the rescue of humans, so it really shouldn't be a surprise to hear that they also work to help each other out during a crisis situation. And indeed, since the 1960s marine biologists have known about care-giving behavior of dolphins, but only so-called 'nurturance behavior' when a mother tries to help a stillborn calf to the surface by using her back.
But in this unprecedented case, a group of Korean researchers observed the dolphins conducting a rescue attempt on a dying adult member. They did so while surveying a large group of long-beaked common dolphins off the South Korean coast back in 2008. Kyum J. Park of the Cetacean Research Institute in Ulsan, Korea and colleagues were observing a group of hundreds of dolphins when they noticed that a small group of 12 had separated from the larger pod and were splashing near the boat.
On closer inspection, the marine biologists noticed that a female member of the pod was not doing so well. It had red marks on its belly, and its flippers appeared to be paralyzed — an indication of a severe and life-threatening injury. It was splashing its tail, its body constantly tipping over to one side, leaving its abdomen often visible to the researchers.
To prevent it from drowning, the group of dolphins took turns to support it from below, nudging it and correcting its balance. But after 30 minutes of this, they had to resort to more desperate measures: They formed a kind of raft by joining their bodies together. The biologists observed that five dolphins worked at a time, lining up horizontally so that the ailing dolphin could ride on their backs. The dolphins also used their beaks to keep the dying dolphin's head up.
But the rescue attempt was not to be. After a few minutes of this desperation measure, the ailing dolphin died, its body hanging vertically in the water. Several dolphins continued to interact with the corpse, frequently rubbing and touching it, swimming underneath, and blowing bubbles on it. Eventually, however, it sank to the bottom, and they moved on.
Now, as Michael Marshall of New Scientist is eager to point out, "The act does not necessarily mean dolphins are selfless or can empathise with the pain of their kin." He quotes biologist Karen McComb who suggests that the simple act of working together could bond the group more strongly, or that the effort could help maintain the group, and thus better control their territory.
That's all fine and well, and even plausible. But scientists shouldn't dismiss the possibility that dolphins are truly empathetic and acting out of a sense of compassion. In fact, cetaceans are one of only a few species, like humans, who possess mirror neurons — a cognitive attribute that endows animals with the ability to form a mental conception of another mind, a biological prerequisite for compassion. And in fact, genetic studies are showing that dolphins have a brain that's remarkably human-like in its capacities.
At any rate, more research needs to be done to prove that dolphins have the capacity for empathy. But if their actions are of any indication, it may be a mistake for us to withhold judgment on the matter.
You can read the entire study here.
Supplementary sources: BBC and New Scientist.