A Sad Cry – What Dolphin Whistles Can Tell Us About Grief In Animals

Source: Hakai Magazine/Katarina Zimmer 

Photo: Leonard Reback/Wikimedia Commons


The adult dolphin carried the limp, dead calf on her back. Occasionally, the dolphin, presumed to be the mother, would dive into the water, taking the carcass with her. A half-dozen Chinese white dolphins followed closely, while a larger group trailed at a distance. When the procession met a boat, the trailing dolphins formed up, pushing themselves between the vessel and the central group.

“They were almost defensive,” says Matt Pine, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who watched the scene play out in Sanniang Bay, in southern China, in December 2014. Pine and his colleagues turned off the boat’s engine and lowered a hydrophone into the water, capturing audio of what they believe to be the sounds of dolphins grieving.

Chinese white dolphins, like other cetacean species, use songs and whistles to communicate while resting, socializing, and feeding. But after analyzing the whistles from the central group, Pine and his colleagues found that they were significantly longer and much more complex than calls the researchers were more familiar with. The recorded sounds included a greater number of inflection points, where the pitch of the whistles changed abruptly.

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Photo: Leonard Reback/Wikimedia Commons

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