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Whales Grieve Just Like Humans, New Study Finds

Cascadia Research

When a whale dies, other whales mourn. This might not seem like a dramatic discovery, but it goes against how scientists have previously defined emotion in the animal kingdom.

Generally, only humans have been considered complex enough to do complex things like mourn. If animals acted differently in different circumstances, it was explained, in the past, as instinct.

Now more research is beginning to show that animals are often just as complex in their actions and reactions as humans.

Read more: A tiny island is showing the world how to protect our oceans

Whales, for instance, seem to suffer for long stretches of time when friends or family members die. They circle the deceased whale, carry it through the water, or linger near it in a depressed state. They put the demands of hunger, travel, and social interaction on hold to stay with the dead body.

It’s a powerful display of empathy that could complicate humanity’s relationship to nature.

A new study identifies seven new marine species as having the capacity for grief. The report raises important questions about the rights of animals and their habitats

Even after decades of protection, six of the 13 major whale species are currently endangered. If animals are capable of perceiving their circumstances with such depth, should they be treated with more dignity?

Climate change, commercial whaling, fishing, pollution, oil and gas extraction, and the general abundance of human activity in the waters all contribute to the dire state of whales.

Read more: Lawless Oceans? 8 Things People Get Away With on International Waters

For instance, the heavy noise from drilling for oil can damage a whale’s hearing, which has to remain extremely sensitive for it to be able to communicate and migrate properly.

A renewed appreciation for the personal experiences of whales and other marine creatures could lead to more robust conservation efforts.

Mourning is just one of the many complex emotions and behaviors of whales.

The non-profit Whales and Dolphins writes:

Whales and dolphins exhibit a wide range of fascinating behaviours, from hunting, spyhopping and tail slapping, to surfing waves and using tools. There are also well substantiated reports of whales and dolphins rescuing humans and even trying to commit suicide in captivity.

Whale and dolphin species tend to exhibit a high degree of social behaviour, including cooperative behaviour, which helps to ensure that groups are successful. Examples of cooperation include bubble-net feeding in humpback whales and the co-operative behaviour between bottlenose dolphins and fishermen reported in various parts of the world.

Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, creatures have shown just as much complexity.

Elephants mourn their dead with elaborate rituals —  shedding tears and crying even. Gorillas communicate with nuanced facial expressions and gestures. And everyone has seen some video of a dog performing an amazingly complex dance routine or some other task.

Read more: Hang With the Elephants of Kenya on Google Street View

Oftentimes, these traits are expressed in stories that are viewed as cute anomalies. But, in reality, they show widely shared tendencies that can deepen our appreciation of animals and improve our harmony with nature.

By accepting that animals are more like humans than previously thought, better models of conservation and better legal codes can be developed.

Read more: River, National Park in New Zealand Are Now Legally People

In the US, endangered species have only been tracked in a legal sense since 1973. After the passage of the Endangered Species Act, countless animals have been saved from extinction.

If animals are granted some form of personhood, they can be better protected against all that threatens them and never reach an endangered state in the first place.

And then, if such measures are effective, whales will have less to grieve.

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