Scientists have observed a group of dolphins in the Sea of Japan using their bodies as a life raft to buoy up a dying friend. In this video from NewScientist.com, the pod of dolphins was seen to hold a struggling female up at the surface of the water in order to help her breathe.
In an article to be published in February's edition of the journal Marine Mammal Science, but which is currently available online, the group of scientists discussed what they called "An unusual case of care-giving" among the dolphins.
Biologist Kyum Park of the Cetacean Research Institute in Ulsan, South Korea, and fellow scientists were surveying cetaceans in the Sea of Japan in June 2008. They spent a day following a group of about 400 long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis).
Around late morning, they witnessed a sub-group of dolphins swimming very close together. They were crowded around a female dolphin that appeared to be in distress, flopping from side to side in the water, sometimes turning all the way over. Her pectoral flippers, they said, seemed to be paralyzed.
Dolphins breathe by swimming to the surface and taking in air through a "blow-hole" on top of their heads. The 12 dolphins aiding the injured dolphin may have kept her from drowning by holding her head at the surface.
At length, the female in distress stopped breathing and while most of the helping dolphins swam away, five remained behind, touching the lifeless female's body with their own until it sank out of sight.
"It does look like quite a sophisticated way of keeping the companion up in the water," Karen McComb, a marine biologist at the University of Sussex at Brighton, U.K., said. While most animal species abandon injured pack members, long-lived, intelligent social animals exhibit these types of helping behaviors when a fellow group member is ill or injured.
The scientists believe that this is evidence that dolphins understand when others are suffering and may even empathize, meaning that they can imagine themselves in the other dolphin's place. While individual instances of helping behaviors have been observed before, such as a mother dolphin helping her calf, this is the first recorded instance of a group of dolphins exhibiting helping behaviors.
Watch the video, embedded below via NewScientist.com: