Study suggests dolphins grieve for their dead

Smiling or grieving? Two dolphins contemplate life and/or spot some fish © PA

Most people think of social rituals like mourning as being unique to humans. But many studies now suggest that higher mammals also grieve. Are animals more like us than we think?

With their face constantly in a smile, we could be forgiven for thinking of dolphins as the happiest animal on the planet. But new evidence suggests this isn’t the case. Dolphins, scientists say, are capable of feeling grief.

A new study highlights two examples of apparent mourning in Atlantic spotted dolphins. First, a tourist boat operator spotted a group of dolphins supporting a dead calf with their backs and heads. Then researchers observed a dolphin carrying a young corpse at the water’s surface.

Science is reluctant to anthropomorphise animals — that is, to project human behaviours onto other species — for fear of being subjective and unprofessional. But this study has compelled the marine biologist leading it to credit dolphins with emotional intelligence equivalent to our own.

It’s not only grief: numerous studies suggest dolphins are capable of a range of emotions. Along with a few other animals, dolphins have passed the ‘ mirror test’ which determines if an animal is self-aware.

There is increasing research looking at how primates respond to death, gaining insight into their emotional intelligence . Chimpanzees have been seen carrying dead bodies, and elephants examine the bones of their deceased. But whether this gives us an insight into animals’ internal world is another question.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin argued that human intelligence comes from animals, as challenges like finding mates, food and shelter require problem-solving skills in order to survive. Contemporary critics said his research was just a collection of anecdotes sprinkled with anthropomorphism. Until recently, in fact, many regarded animals as mere machines, incapable of thought.

Now, dolphins in particular have risen massively in our estimations. They were once seen as emotionless, amorphous specks in the ocean. Now their emotional capabilities are said to rival ours. Campaigners argue that they should be seen as ‘non-human persons’, and India has banned keepers from holding dolphins captive for entertainment purposes.

Getting deep

That dolphins are remarkable animals is beyond doubt. Yet no amount of research can give us a reliable insight into what it is like inside the mind of another species. Attempts to empathise with animals are sentimental and misplaced, argue more sceptical scientists: animals are and always will be a mystery.

Of course the nature of consciousness is an enigma, many animal rights activists respond. But dolphins display a huge array of recognisable emotions and complex social relationships. It’s reasonable to believe that dolphins’ experience of the world is comparable to our own, and to treat them accordingly.

You Decide

  1. Should dolphins have legal rights in the same way humans do?
  2. Could research into which animals are emotionally intelligent lead to unequal treatment in the animal kingdom?


  1. Write a letter from the point of view of an animal rights campaigner to a animal attraction, explaining why they shouldn’t use dolphins for entertainment purposes.
  2. Create a group of tests that you can use on animals to determine if they have emotional intelligence. Research the mirror test for inspiration.

Some People Say...

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Mahatma Ghandi

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter if animals are emotionally intelligent?
Understanding the emotional intelligence of animals helps us to gauge the extent of animals’ rights. For example, India’s decision to ban dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes comes from the extensive research into their emotional intelligence.
Is it such a bad thing to anthropomorphise?
Scientists try to stay objective and look at the facts, because attributing human tendencies to animals can cloud results. Many of us do this with our pets, however, and there’s no harm in that.

Word Watch

Atlantic spotted
Atlantic spotted dolphins grow to around 7 ½ feet, weighing up to 360 lbs (2.3 m / 160 kg). They get their name from the unique spots they develop as they enter adulthood.
To anthropomorphise is to project human traits onto animals, such as saying your pet dog is grumpy or excited. But it extends to other non-humans, too — a good example being our habit for naming hurricanes and ships.
Mirror test
The mirror test involved researchers dyeing a spot of animals’ fur, before putting them in front of a mirror to observe their behaviour. The researchers concluded that animals were self-aware if they examined the coloured spot in the mirror.
Emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is our ability to use our own emotions, and be aware of others’ emotions, to help influence our behaviour and thinking.

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