Do whales grieve for their dead?

Conservation news


Given the widespread recognition afforded to the modern concept of sentience in animals, it seems strange that for centuries it was neither accepted or understood at all. Philosophers from Aristotle through to Kant believed animals to be dispassionate entities, acting almost without emotion and functionally directed by innate behaviours.

The so-called age of Enlightenment, or Reason which spanned the late 18th and early 19th century, saw seismic shifts in political and social thinking and in amongst this, a reconsideration of human attitudes towards animals. The change is best summed up in the words of Jeremy Bentham, the English social reformer (and early animal welfare advocate..), who got right to the nub of the issue in 1789 when he wrote “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Less than 100 years later, with bear-baiting and bull-baiting consigned to the history books and the RSPCA having been established, it fell to Darwin to complete the circle of enlightenment when he wrote: "We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals."

We would have no hesitation in arguing that cetaceans belong to Darwin’s “higher animals” even if he doesn’t explicitly name them. It has long been recognised that amongst our mammal populations, cetaceans are highly intelligent, social and playful. What has also been observable, and has been less easily recognised and understood is emotion in the form of grief.

Death-related, or “epimeletic,” behaviours, are well-documented in cetaceans and include maintaining physical contact with a dead individual, remaining in the vicinity, and moving, lifting, or carrying the carcass. In mid-August, a female Cuvier’s beaked whale was observed in the Bay of Biscay swimming round and nudging at its dead calf seemingly in an attempt to resuscitate it. In 2010, a killer whale on the US West Coast nudged and pushed its dead calf around for six hours, unwilling to abandon it. Most memorably of all was the orca KL35 in the Pacific Northwest who carried her dead calf for 17 days and over 1,000 miles as it sought to keep up with its pod.

It is not hard for us as humans to become emotionally entangled with these stories – to have some shared comprehension of what is going through the hearts and minds of the grief stricken mother. However some scientists argue that without evidence, we are just projecting human emotions onto animals and that the behaviours we interpret as grief could be confusion on the part of the animal and a reluctance to accept the death of their calf.

What we do know is that the behaviour extends across a range of species and geographical locations, so this doesn’t seem to be localised behaviour – its widespread.

A team of researchers recently reported seeing dead calves or juveniles being carried by adult Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, orcas, Australian humpback dolphins and sperm whales. A study in 2018 found that there had been 45 published cases of epimeletic behaviours with a majority of these reports in the family Delphinidae, which includes bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, and killer whales. The remaining cases involved belugas and sperm whales.

There’s no doubt that a common emotion is prevalent in all these cases – the clinging on to their dead offspring doesn’t signal disinterest or ambivalence on the part of the bereaved mother and we see it in other species such as elephants and primates.

But is the emotion that manifests itself in epimeletic behaviour one of grief, or confusion, desperation or all these things? We have much more to learn about the behaviours exhibited by wildlife that we observe and puzzle over, and science will bring conclusions to these questions. But that emotional connection which echoes through us as humans when we empathise with that mother with her dead calf doesn’t need science for us to feel it. We can thank human evolution and the enlightened understanding of animal sentience for that at least.