Death at the Aquarium

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One of the highlights of a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is the midday dolphin show. At least, that’s what I’m told. Every day at noon, the facility’s two resident male dolphins, Nicholas and Indy leap through hoops, play with balls, and otherwise astonish the crowd assembled on the aquarium’s bleachers.

A trainer feeds the aquarium's two "girls," Winter and Panama.

But on the day of my visit, late last month, the boys just weren’t feeling it. They were slow and listless and mostly ignored their trainers’ commands. But the aquarium offered to make it up to us: Since the show we’d seen had been a dud, some trainers were going to do an impromptu demonstration with the aquarium’s newest resident: a five-month-old dolphin calf.

The little calf didn’t know many commands yet; mostly, the dolphin spent the brief show swimming around her sparkling pool, rolling onto her back, and rubbing up against her trainer’s legs. But she was adorable, and I was smitten. I quickly forgot about uncooperative Nicholas and Indy.

Until the next morning, when I returned to the aquarium, a few minutes before its 9 a.m. opening time. I saw bleary-eyed staff members coming and going from the back entrance and watched hugs and whispers being exchanged. Gradually, I pieced together what had happened–Indy, one of the facility’s normally rambunctious boys, had died overnight.

The death was sudden, and caught the staff off-guard. They had noticed the day before that Indy wasn’t his usual self and had stationed people by his tank to observe the cetacean after hours. But otherwise, Indy had been in good health. (He was also young–about 9 years old, while captive dolphins can live into their 40s.)

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium

The Clearwater Aquarium is a small facility (Indy’s death brought the number of dolphins there from 5 to 4), and I got the sense that the staff is a tight-knit family. For the trainers, who spend most of their waking hours with the aquarium’s small population of marine mammals, it must be devastating to lose a dolphin. I sympathized with the trainers as they carried on, out of necessity, with their normal duties, feeding and caring for their other charges. And then, suddenly, another thought occurred to me: What about Nicholas? The two dolphins had shared a tank for years; surely Indy’s longtime companion would notice his sudden absence.

There’s been a lot of speculation about what other species understand about death–whether nonhuman animals can grieve and mourn. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our closest relative, the chimp, seem to handle death in ways that would be familiar to us. Chimpanzee mothers have been observed carrying around the bodies of their dead youngsters, and chimp adults have also been seen caring for a dying elder and standing vigil over the body, according to two papers published in Current Biology in 2010. Ed Yong has more details about what this all means over on his blog.  (Excerpt: “Both of these examples suggest that chimpanzees have a better awareness of death and dying that people have previously thought. In many ways, this shouldn’t be surprising – these animals are self-aware and empathetic towards each other.”)

Dolphins, in fact, have been known to engage in similar behavior, carrying around the bodies of their dead calves. Elephants, in particular, are also known for their sensitivity toward the death of their own kind. And anecdotal reports of other species reacting to death and dying regularly make the news. (Discovery News has a pretty amazing video that shows a squirrel happening upon another’s lifeless body.)

Of course, it’s impossible to know what these animals are actually feeling subjectively. It depends how you define grief, I suppose, and what you mean by mourn, but should we really be surprised that social animals–which includes chimps, elephants, and dolphins–would notice when a group member goes missing? Nicholas spent years living with Indy. He’ll likely require as much TLC as the aquarium’s grieving humans.

Further reading:
Marc Bekoff has a pair of great round-ups of what we know about grief and mourning in animals.

Natalie Angier also has a nice overview of the topic.

Four videos of chimpanzee encounters with death.

Anderson, James R. (2010-04-27) Pan thanatology. Current Biology, 20(8), R349-R351. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.010

Biro, Dora. (2010-04-27) Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants. Current Biology, 20(8), R351-R352. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031

Douglas-Hamilton, Iain. (2006-10) Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100(1-2), 87-102. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.014

Images: Both images are my own photographs.

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