A mother dolphin mourning her dead baby calf was caught on camera in a grieving ritual rarely seen by humans.
The incident, which took place in the Guangxi Zhuang region in China, was captured on camera by a boat full of tourists who watched the mother struggle against rough seas with the calf on her back, the London Daily Mail reported. The baby dolphin slipped several times, but the mother carefully scooped up the baby and continued on her journey out to sea.
The dolphin mourning ritual has gained attention in the United States, earning a segment on the NBC Today show and video of the incident trending on the internet.
It appeared that the baby dolphin suffered a violent death–perhaps hit by a boat or caught in its propellers–and its broken body is slumping over its mother. A large gash was seen on the calf’s belly.
It happens that the Guangxi Zhuang region is a popular tourist destination, with many dolphin-watching tours. But ironically the tourists who come to watch the dolphins also pose a hazard as their boats zip through waters.
It is believed that the dolphin was moving her calf away from shore so it could lay to rest in deeper waters, a dolphin mourning ritual rarely seen by humans.
Researchers had caught glimpses of dolphin mourning rituals before, primarily with stillborn calves and others that die in infancy. Mother dolphins are known to stay with dead babies for several days, a behavior also seen in whales, elephants and chimpanzees. While these researchers don’t believe dolphins feel human emotions, they do believe the behavior indicates that dolphins have an understanding of mortality, and could even contemplate their own death, the Daily Mail noted.
Joan Gonzalvo, a researcher with the Tethys Research Institute in Italy, said in other dolphin mourning cases it appears the mother is unready or unable to accept the death, the Daily Mail reported. The video from China appears to show the mother attempting to keep her calf’s head above water, allowing it to breathe.
In another case Gonzalvo said he saw a pod of dolphins surround a dying calf, swimming frantically and lifting its head above the surface.
“My hypothesis is that the sick animal was kept company and given support, and when it died the group had done their job,” Gonzalvo told the Daily Mail. “In this case they had already assumed death would eventually come – they were prepared.”
A local fisherman said the mother dolphin mourned the calf day and night, not letting the baby leave her side, MSN News reported.