Dolphins team up to help injured comrade

Dolphins have long been known for their considerate behaviour and apparent empathy. There have been widespread reports of single dolphins helping other individuals even humans in distress, but until now no documented cases of groups of dolphins working together to help another. A recently released video shows how in June, 2008 for the first time, dolphins were filmed teaming up to try to rescue an injured group member.

During a day spent following a group of about 400 long-beaked common dolphins environmental researchers from the Cetacean Research Institute in South Korea noticed that about 12 dolphins were swimming very close together. On closer inspection they saw that a female adult dolphin was in distress: she was wriggling and tipping from side to side, sometimes turning upside-down. Her pectoral flippers appeared to be paralysed.

The other dolphins crowded around her, diving beneath her to supporting her from below. After about 30 minutes, the dolphins came together in a raft formation:swimming side by side with the injured female on their backs. By keeping her above water, they may have been helping her to breathe and avoid drowning.

A short while later some of the helper dolphins left. The injured dolphin soon dropped into a tail down, vertical position. The remaining helpers appeared to try and prop her up, possibly to keep her head above the surface, but she soon stopped breathing. Five dolphins stayed with her and continued touching her body, until she sank out of sight.

“It makes a lot of sense in a highly intelligent and social animal for there to be support of an injured animal,” says Karen McComb at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. This kind of cooperative helping behaviour is only seen in intelligent, long-lived social animals. McComb says the helper dolphins may also benefit from this kind act. Rescuing the struggling dolphin could help maintain their group, and thus control of their territory. If the group contains close relatives, protecting those relatives also helps the dolphins preserve their shared genes. The simple act of working together could also bond the group more strongly.

The act of helping also seems to suggest that the dolphins understand when others are suffering, and can even empathise. Dolphins have well developed frontal lobes cited to be a constituent of empathy in humans. Dolphins have also been seen interacting with the corpses of dead dolphins, which some researchers interpret as a form of mourning.

This is yet another example of the mounting body of evidence showing dolphins to be one of the most intelligent animal species with complex social structures, individuals co-operating to solve difficult problems, and with new behaviors being passed from one dolphin to another. In anatomical studies of the dolphin, zoologist Lori Marino and colleagues from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia in the US, used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans to map the brains of dolphins and compare them with the brains of primates. She found the ratio of dolphin brain mass to body size to be second only to the human brain.

Sources: New Scientist, Marine Mammal Science,


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One Response to Dolphins team up to help injured comrade

  1. Gavin Reeves says:

    Scientists had known that dolphins work together to herd groups of mullet, a fish that’s an important source of food for local fishermen, toward a line of fishermen in boats or knee-deep water. Then the dolphins signal with specialized head or tail slaps when and where the fishermen should throw their nets. The cooperation is helpful to both parties, researchers said. The two wouldn’t survive without each other.

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