Animals more capable of empathy than previously thought, study finds
Researcher found that prairie voles would console one another after experiencing stress
A new study has found that prairie voles will console other voles who are feeling stressed – which researchers have described as evidence of empathy.
A study team at Emory University set up an experiment where pairs of voles isolated from each other, and one of them was exposed to mild shocks.
When they were reunited, the voles who hadn’t been shocked would lick their partners sooner and for longer durations than specimens in a control group who were separated but not exposed to shocks.
The consoling behavior only took place between voles who were familiar with each other, and not between strangers. According to researchers Larry Young and James Burkett, this demonstrates that the behavior was not simply a reaction to aversive cues.
The study authors said: “Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.”
Prairie voles are known for maintaining lifelong, monogamous partnerships, in which both parents will look after their offspring.
Until recently it was thought that only humans, great apes, and large-brained mammals such as dolphins and elephants were capable of showing consolation behavior towards one another. This latest study is the first time empathy has been identified in rodents.
Researchers also investigated the effects of blocking the oxytocin receptor in the voles’ brains, given that the neurotransmitter is associated with empathy in humans. In a series of consolation experiments, it was found that blocking oxytocin did stop the animals from consoling each other, but did not effect their self-grooming behavior.
Their report, published this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said: “Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species. We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans.”