Young gorillas and adult females gather around mother and dead offspring in an act of apparent sympathy or possibly even ceremony in April. (Photo Credit: Virunga National Park)

Mourning the loss of a loved one was initially thought to be just a human characteristic. However, over the years, experts have observed similar behavior in terrestrial social animals like gorillas and elephants. In one case, a herd of wild elephants spent hours trying to lift the body of their dead matriarch. After accepting her death, the elephants covered the body with leaves and tree branches and kept vigil for two days before finally dispersing. Now, scientists have discovered that even whales undergo tremendous sorrow when they lose an offspring or companion.

For their research, the team, led by Melissa Reggente, a biologist from the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy, parsed through data from 14 observations of unusual whale conduct. Seven of those incidents appeared to display mourning or grieving behavior. The results of the study, published in the Journal of Mammology in July, indicate that whether it is the massive sperm whale, the killer (orca) whale, or the relatively tiny spinner dolphin, the grieving patterns are similar.

A mother orca carries her dead newborn (Photo Credit: Robin W. Baird, Cascadia Research

In one case, researchers on a boat in the Red Sea saw an Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphin push the badly decayed corpse of a smaller dolphin through the water. When they lassoed the carcass and began towing it towards land to bury it, the adult dolphin swam alongside, until the water became too shallow. Even then, it continued to watch long after the body had been removed from the water. Reggente speculates that the adult dolphin was probably grieving the untimely death of its calf.

In a separate, but equally heart-wrenching incident observed near the San Juan Islands in Washington, a female killer whale was seen balancing her dead newborn on top of her head to keep it from sinking. In the North Atlantic Ocean, a pod of short-finned pilot whales created a circle around a grieving mother and her dead calf, protecting the two from predators looking to feed on the corpse.

The scientists say that this behavior is extremely “costly’ for animals because it takes time away from normal activities like foraging for food, mating, and socializing with other members of the species. It, therefore, makes no evolutionary sense, thus leading the team to conclude that the whales were grieving for their loved ones.

Female killer whale pushing her dead calf (Photo Credit: Orca Research)

Barbara King, emeritus professor of anthropology at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, concurs with this theory. The author of the book How Animals Grieve says that some of the unusual behavior may be driven by curiosity or exploration. However, when mammals expend energy with actions like clinging on to their loved one’s bodies or repeatedly touching the carcass with their fins, they are mourning their loss.

Given that whales are intelligent social animals, the findings do not come as a big surprise to most experts. The mammals do, after all, form strong friendships and even lifelong bonds with companions, just like humans. However, now that there is substantial evidence of the grief they undergo, people will perhaps be more cautious in their treatment of these magnificent marine animals.