Cetacean researchers have observed a pod of dolphins forming a 'life raft' to buoy an injured pod member during her final minutes of life.
New Scientistreports that the researchers, led by Kyum Park of the Cetacean Research Center in Ulsan, South Korea, observed the behavior among a pod of long-beaked common dolphins in the Sea of Japan.
The scientists witnessed a group of about a dozen dolphins swimming very closely together. Among the group was an injured female who was visibly floundering, her pectoral fins apparently paralyzed. Her pod mates crowded around the wounded animal, often swimming below her to prop her up in the water. Half an hour later, the creatures actually carried their ailing companion on their backs, keeping her above the water's surface so she could breathe.
After some time, some of the pod members broke away from the 'life raft' and it wasn't long before the ailing dolphin died. Five of her companions remained with her body until it sank to a watery grave in the ocean depths.
Cetacean researcher Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England called the pod's behavior "quite a sophisticated way of keeping the companion up in the water." McComb told New Scientist that aside from possible empathy, reasons for the animals' actions could include group cohesion, territorial control and protection of the gene pool. It could also reinforce group bonds.
"It makes a lot of sense in a highly intelligent and social animal for there to be support of an injured animal," McComb said.
New Scientist reports that this is the first time such behavior has been observed, although various cetacean species are known to help each other-- and rarely, even members of other species-- in times of need.
Earlier this week, Digital Journal reported that a group of sperm whales 'adopted' a bottlenose dolphin with a spinal deformity.
But on the whole, it hasn't been a very good week for dolphins in the news. In Japan, fishermen drove hundreds of dolphins into the Taiji inlet made infamous by the Oscar-winning documentary film "The Cove" and slaughtered scores of them for their meat while capturing the "lucky" ones, who are destined for lives of entertaining humans at marine parks.
And in New York City, a short-beaked common dolphin strayed from its pod and swam up the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal, where it struggled in toxic sludge for hours before dying.