In oceans around the world, scientists have witnessed a rare and touching sight: whales clinging to dead members of their kin.
In a new study published recently in the Journal of Mammalogy, biologist Melissa Reggente from the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy collected observed data from unpublished reports of whale behavior and noticed that all seven of the species documented had been seen huddling close to their deceased companions.
The team of researchers (as well as outside experts) agree that these whales are mourning—an emotion that, in animals, is not unlike what we humans experience when we’ve lost a loved one. Scientists have noted this phenomenon in giraffes, elephants, and chimps, but had not yet confirmed the extent of this behavior in whale species.
The seven species studied were Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Australian humpback dolphins, sperm whales, Risso’s dolphins, short-finned pilot whales, and spinner dolphins. Here’s Traci Watson, reporting for National Geographic:
Scientists on a boat in the Red Sea, for example, watched an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin push the badly decayed corpse of a smaller dolphin through the water.
After the researchers lassoed the dead animal and began towing it to land to bury it, the adult swam with the body, occasionally touching it, until the water became treacherously shallow. Long after the carcass had been taken away, the adult remained just offshore. (See National Geographic’s beautiful whale pictures.)
It’s not clear how the two dolphins were related, but chances are they were either mother and child or close kin, Reggente says.
Whatever the relationship these animals have to one another, many varieties of grieving behavior seem to exist. For example, some pilot whales in the North Atlantic formed a circle around a dead calf and its parent. Just as humans evolved different ways of mourning, so did animals—and it could affect the way scientists understand socialization in the animal kingdom as a whole.