It seems that not only humans can feel sorry for one another, or console each other in times of distress, but rodents are capable of empathy, too. A team of researchers from Berkeley University has experimented on prairie voles, a social rodent species, and has determined that they are, indeed, capable of feeling empathy.
- The mammals were divided into groups of family and friends and non-familiar individuals
- The researchers would take an individual, apply a small amount of electric shock and return it to its peers that immediately started grooming and consoling him
- The behavior was manifested only between the prairie voles that knew each other
- The hormone oxytocin was found to produce empathy
Prairie voles are a rodent species known for their high social interactions. They are often seen in their natural habitat in large family groups grooming each other, nursing the babies and exhibiting a behavior that great resembled concern when one member of the group disappeared.
In order to establish if the small rodents are capable of empathy, the scientists devised an experiment. They divided the mammals into various groups, some with friends and family and some with animals that didn’t know each other.
After dividing them, they proceeded into taking an individual out of a group and administering him some mild electric shocks. The remaining voles in the family and friends group acted nervous and concerned until the kidnaped prairie mammal was returned to them. Upon reuniting, they started consoling him and licking him as if they knew he suffered some kind of physical distress.
In order to be sure that the voles understood the trauma of the kidnaped fellow, the team also took individuals from their groups for a period of time without administering any electrical shock. The others still showed signs of compassion upon its return, but the mammal that was taken was groomed, licked and consoled for a shorter period of time than the mammal that was taken and shocked.
The rodents in the non-familiar group did not react the same way, which leads the scientists to conclude that the rodents are capable of empathy while there is additional emotional background. This is a remarkable find taking into account the fact that humans may have reacted the same way.
The explanation for this behavior is the hormone oxytocin, also called the love hormone. In order to demonstrate that, the team administered a drug that stopped the oxytocin production in the brain of the voles and repeated the experiment. The result was that when the individual that was taken was returned, the others groomed it, but they did not display any signs of consolation.
Additional studies proved before that humans are not the only mammals that take care of their friends and family members. Researchers have proved that elephants and dolphins have complex social interactions, elephants being capable of crying after a lost loved one and even visit the site of their death. Although further research is needed, maybe rodents are capable of empathy, too, because it is a defining trait for all mammals.
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