Despite Flipper’s reputation for adorableness, dolphins really are dangerous, aggressive animals. That said, there are times when we’re all reminded why they’re known for cuteness.
Kyum Park of the Cetacean Research Institute in Ulsan, South Korea, and colleagues in July 2008 spotted one pod of long-beaked dolphins carrying out a display of particularly bittersweet behavior. According to the story reported in Marine Mammal Science, a female of the group was in trouble. Her pectoral flippers were paralyzed, and she was having difficulty swimming or even staying afloat.
But others in her group soon helped out, trading off swimming with their injured companion, and creating a raft of dolphins to keep her from drowning.
Sadly, they weren’t able to save her. But as she sank, five of her friends stayed with her, touching her body, as if they were mourning her loss.
It’s difficult to assign motives to such actions — after all, we can’t ask a dolphin why it did something — but Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., told New Scientist that rescuing an injured member of the group could help the pod to maintain its territory, preserve shared genes, or maintain the group’s bond. “It makes a lot of sense in a highly intelligent and social animal for there to be support of an injured animal,” McComb said.
Whether the actions constitute empathy is harder to say. But with such feelings sometimes lacking in the human world, it certainly is good to see something like it, even among deadly animals.