Tag Archives: Empathy

Did you know that adoption also occurs in animals?

Female bonobo with an adopted daughter feeding on fruit from the branch that adoptive mother broke off and was holding.

Adoption – that is, the exclusive care for someone else’s offspring (especially after the mother’s death) – occurs in many mammals, such as chimpanzees, dolphins, squirrels, hyenas and polar bears. If someone else’s egg ends up in a bird’s nest, it will often take care of the hatched chick (even one of another species, such as a cuckoo). This seems to be more of an instinctive behaviour than a conscious choice on the part of the parents. Caring for others’ offspring has also been observed in some species of fish and wasps. But these are isolated cases, and the following text concerns (non-human) mammals.

In mammals, maternal care is especially important during the period when the infant still needs milk. Usually, the orphaned young will be taken care of by a female, who at the same time is feeding her own offspring, or who has just lost it. There are also cases where the female begins lactation after adoption – for example in bottlenose dolphins.

In many mammals, the mother continues to take care of the young also after weaning, by providing e.g. protection, transportation, and food. A maternal presence is also important for the development of the young’s emotional, social and cognitive skills. Therefore, adoption even at an older age is important for the survival and wellbeing of young animals.

Why do adult animals adopt someone else’s child? After all, that requires a lot of energy and time. There may be several reasons for this behaviour.

Orphans are most frequently adopted by their family, for example older siblings. From an evolutionary point of view, caring for a relative is beneficial because family members share genes, and therefore helping a relative increases the chance of passing one’s genes to the next generation.

Adoption by young females may also give them a chance to learn and develop their maternal skills, which in the future may increase the chances of survival of their own offspring.

In animals that live in groups (for example, chimpanzees), it is common for an orphan to be adopted by females who had a close social bond with its mother. In this way, the social relationships between group members are maintained, which can be beneficial for the foster mother. An adoptee can also become an ally of the adoptive parent and help to raise their social status or reputation.

There are also cases of adoption of unrelated individuals, even from entirely different social groups by experienced mothers (e.g. in bonobos). In such cases, it seems that the adoption does not bring any direct benefits to the adopted mother (although in some cases there may the potential for help from the adoptee in the future). As I wrote elsewhere, many animals show empathy, and in some cases, adoption seems to be purely empathetic behaviour (for example, in dolphins, bonobos or chimpanzees, who additionally have a soft spot for infants).

Photo from Tokuyama (2021).

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Did you know that rats show empathic behaviour?

Imagine that you are walking along a lake. Suddenly you notice someone in the water, calling for help. What do you do? The answer may depend on many factors, such as how well you can swim or whether there are other people nearby. You can consciously analyse the situation but feelings are also important. Most people actually feel distressed when seeing others suffering which may push them into action.

And it seems that such empathy with others’ suffering is not restricted to humans, but occurs in many other animals.

Scientists studied empathic behaviour in rats and found that rats saved others from a water bath (not deep but still unpleasant). They did that even if the helped rat would end up in another compartment, without the possibility for social interaction which is rewarding for these animals. The rats helped not only their cage-mates but also strangers and if they experienced the bath themselves earlier, they were more willing to help the other rat.

However, when more effort was needed to help another rat – for example: multiple chain pulls were required to activate the opening mechanism – animals were less willing to help (similarly to humans).

Another experiment showed that one rat can take the time and effort to release another from a very tight and uncomfortable tube, even when it could choose to eat chocolate (which they like a lot) instead. Although in this case rats could interact with each other and eventually share the chocolate.

It seems that the willingness to help other animals, even if it brings no direct reward, or even comes at a cost (less chocolate later), stems from the fact that rats try to reduce their own empathetic discomfort. This is supported by the fact that rats which were given the anxiety-reducing drug midazolam paid no special attention to distressed companions (but they did to chocolate).

Not only rats show empathy, but also for example, dolphins, elephants and monkeys. There are even cases of chimpanzees in zoos drowning while trying to help their children or mates that had fallen into a moat surrounding their enclosure.

So, we know that animals can show empathic behaviour. Will we show empathy towards them?

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