Emotion in the Eyes of a Dolphin

Vancouver, BC | Posted: September 21st, 2016

Humans have long overlooked the emotional intelligence of the animal world; quietly ambivalent to the grief, the sorrow, the happiness and joy that are built into their collective persona. Those of us who care deeply for wildlife, and that study their behavior, can recognize the parallel emotional states.

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In June 2016, Giovanni Bearzi and a group of researchers set out to study dolphins in Greece’s Gulf of Corinth. Bearzi’s team studied a variety of dolphins including striped dolphins, common bottlenose dolphins, short-beaked common dolphins, and a Risso’s dolphin.

Early one morning their efforts took them out into the middle of the gulf where they discovered a striped dolphin cautiously active alongside a recently deceased companion. As their boat approached carefully, they attempted not to disturb the pair, while getting close enough to observe the behavior.

Photo Credit: Giovanni Bearzi

Photo Credit: Giovanni Bearzi

The team watched intently as the living dolphin made attempts to turn over, move, and push up the body of its lifeless companion; as if attempting to give it’s friend one more chance to breathe. The dolphin continued to swim in circles around the body, desperately trying to flip it over, repeating this behavior over and over again.

When the crew returned to shore they examined the photographs taken at the scene. The researchers discovered common indicators of grief in the eyes of the dolphin. Though dolphins are unable to make facial expressions, their eyes told a different story. The photographs showed the living dolphin never looking up and staying in constant connection while swimming circles in its attempts to wake the deceased.

It is extremely unusual for dolphins to be separated from their groups. They are social pod mammals; to discover one, on its own, trying to help a loved one was an incredible moment and displaying evolved emotions of a dolphin in grief. Although the relationship between the two mammals is unclear, the moment was far from it, and the gravity of loss was felt by all present.

Photo Credit: Giovanni Bearzi

Photo Credit: Giovanni Bearzi

As those of us in conservation gain a greater understanding of the emotional intelligence of animals, we are recognizing both how small the world is and how similarly we connect.

Dr. Giovanni Bearzi

Dr. Giovanni Bearzi


To learn more about Dr. Bearzi’s impressive work, please click here.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can actively participate with a dolphin research and conservation project, check out this program in nearby Croatia, with Animal Experience International.


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