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Expressions of grief not uncommon in dolphins, as seen in protective mother on Folly River

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Dolphin and calf

A female dolphin was seen earlier this month pushing her deceased calf in the Folly River. Lauren Rust of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network said she was unsure if the dolphin had previously been alive or was a stillborn. Charlie Waterman of Flipper Finders/Provided

Much like people, dolphins have been known to show grief-like characteristics following the loss of a companion. And when the deceased dolphin is a calf, the process may take the mother several weeks to overcome and place a toll on her health.

Earlier this month, Lowcountry marine officials warned people to stay clear of a female dolphin seen pushing around a deceased calf in the Folly River.

Lauren Rust, executive director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, said when the organization received reports of the situation the calf was already dead. She was unsure if the dolphin had been born alive or was a stillbirth.

But in any scenario, the female dolphin will probably grieve the same way. Rust said the deceased calf in the Folly River was seen floating on its back while the mother nudged it around.

“Other times, they’ll pull it underwater,” Rust said. “Sometimes they’ll lift it to the surface, kind of maybe hoping it’ll take a breath.”

Wayne McFee, a research wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Charleston, said when dolphins lose their newborn calves, their instinct is to try to push it to the surface to get it to breathe.

“We don’t know what exactly grieving means to dolphins or whether they do grieve, but you know, it may be more of an innate behavior to try to get them to breathe,” McFee said.

Rust said the adult dolphin seen in the Folly River was not a first-time mother. But firstborn calves have high mortality rates, for a number of reasons.

“One of the more obvious is that dolphins can carry a lot of contaminants and they will actually flush those into their firstborn, their blood, placenta, even milk,” Lush said.

Dolphins who are first-time mothers might not know how to nurse or protect the calf, which could also lead to its death, as well.

People are instructed not to bother the mother and deceased calf if seen in the Folly River because it could cause more stress for the animal. 

"We (the NOAA) do tend to try to extract the calf from her (the mother) so that she can basically get on to her life," McFee said. 

"Because while she's pushing this calf around, she's really not feeding at all."

But only federal employees or people with permits are allowed to attempt such extractions. The Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it a crime to restrain, disturb or feed marine mammals in the wild. 

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