Empathy Is More Common in the Animal Kingdom Than Thought

January 26, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Two prairie voles consoling each other
Photo credit: Zack Johnson

It is not restricted to humans.

Empathy is not restricted to humans.  Highly social animals such as dogs, elephants, dolphins, birds and even rats have been known to show compassion towards others.  And now, a new study proposes that empathy is actually a lot more common in the animal kingdom than previously thought.

James Burkett at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues decided to explore the empathy behaviors of prairie voles.  Prairie voles are very social and have been the focus of many studies.

The researchers created an experiment where they temporarily isolated relatives and known individuals from each other.  While isolated, they gave one of them mild shocks.  Once they were reunited, the non-stressed prairie voles began to lick the stressed voles sooner and for longer durations compared to the control scenario where individuals were separated, but neither were exposed to shocks.

SEE ALSO: Science Confirms What Pet Owners Already Know: Dogs are Self Aware

Measurements of the voles hormone levels revealed that family members and friends were actually distressed when they were unable to comfort their loved ones.  This behavior only occurred between individuals who were familiar with each other — not with strangers.

Until this study, consolation had only been documented in a few highly sociable non-human species.

For example, elephants have a group ritual when a member of an elephant troop dies.  They mourn the individual by “burying” the body with leaves and grass, and they keep vigil over the body for a week.  And just like humans visit grave sites, elephants visit the bones of their dead relatives for years.

Dolphins show love for not only their own species, but others as well.  Dolphins have been known to rescue swimmers from sharks and guide stranded whales back to the sea.

The study also showed that oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," is the underlying mechanism for this empathy.  Oxytocin is the receptor associated with empathy in humans, so Burkett and his team blocked this neurotransmitter in the prairie voles and then conducted a series of similar experiments.  

It turns out that blocking oxytocin resulted in the prairie voles ceasing to console each other.  How sad.

Nevertheless, the results of this study definitely provide a better understanding into the mechanisms that produce empathy.  And who knows, maybe all animals have the ability to show empathy.

You can watch a short video describing the experiment below.


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