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26 Nov November Sighting of the Month

Bottlenose Dolphin Carries Dead Calf

In late October WCA Partner Lloyd Edwards from Raggy Charters encountered a pod of around 600 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins just off St Croix Island, Algoa Bay, South Africa. It was an incredible sight, and an amazing encounter… until they saw one of them pushing something on its beak/forehead. Lloyd managed to get a photo and it turned out to be a dead calf. This is known as epimeletic, care or attention giving behaviour. It was heartbreaking and sad to see, as the mother may carry it around for weeks.

In fact Lloyd saw the same female on 15th November pushing a white piece of meat about one third the original mass. Unfortunately Lloyd could not get a picture that time. But if it was indeed the calf, this mother has been pushing her calf along for 26 days plus an estimated 10 days that the calf had been dead when first sighted.

Sad sighting of a mother pushing her dead calf
Sad sighting of a mother pushing her dead calf

A sad encounter but one that reveals so much about these incredible animals. This mother is either mourning her loss or helping it to stay afloat in the hope that it revives itself. Some animals have been known to carry a rotting carcass around, so it is more likely mourning it. Scientists just do not know what is going on in their brains.

In this case it looked like a very young calf, possibly a newborn due to the lack of skin although the body was initially still intact. It was estimated the calf had been dead for around 10 days when Lloyd initially saw the mother, judging by the state of skin decay.

This behaviour has been documented in captive and free ranging dolphins, and is most evident in calves that have been suckling for two or more years.

Recently, southern resident orca J35 made international headlines pushing her dead calf in a similar way for 17 days off the west coast of Canada and the US.

Huge thanks to the marine biologists who gave their thoughts and input into this sighting, Drs Els Vermeulen, Meredith Thornton, Vic Cockcroft, Enrico Gennari, Gwen Penry, Pierre Pistorius and Simon Elwen.

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