Altruism: How Wild Animals Care for Their Own and Others
Animals and Altruism
Are animals capable of displaying selfless concern for the well being of others, caring for those close to them without thought of individual reward?
It's a question that's been asked by scientists and philosophers for centuries. The debate is still going on and I hope this article will help you decide whether or not you believe animals are capable of showing genuine altruism.
In other words, does altruism exist in the lifestyles of wild animals? And is it based on care, compassion and sympathy, or are they simply being selfish for their own good?
When a human cares for another human in a selfless way we are often moved and inspired. Acts of love and self sacrifice are a daily occurrence and are, it could be argued, vital for our self preservation as a species.
Studies by naturalists and scientists have shown that certain wild animals are capable of altruistic behaviour too. It seems to be a natural part of their make up. But is it altruism or selfishness?From insects to reptiles to the higher mammals some animals do seem to care for their own. And others.
Here are 10 examples that illustrate this surprisingly common attribute.
1. Elephants That Care and Grieve
Elephants have the longest gestation time of any land animal -22 months - meaning that the bond between mother and baby is particularly strong. Experienced mothers in a herd often show care and concern for new mothers who need extra help with their babies. The veterans will take turns looking after the new baby, guiding it with their sensitive trunks, giving time for the new mother to gain energy so she has enough quality milk for her offspring.
There are also documented examples of adult elephants helping to rescue a baby elephant when it became stuck in deep mud at a watering hole in Africa. One or two carefully scraped the mud away from around the baby whilst another nudged it slowly so that it was able to break free.
Behaviour like this helps ensure the group survives and bonds the herd together.
Recent studies by Dr Joshua Plotnik at the University of Cambridge demonstrate beyond doubt that elephants do have a high level of cooperative ability on a par with those of chimpanzees. You can check out his findings in the National Academy of Sciences Journal.
As National Geographic correspondent Virgina Morell writes : 'Elephants help each other in distress, grieve for their dead, and feel the same emotions as each other - just like us.'
National Geographic 23.2.2014
Looking at the evidence it seems that elephants are to a degree altruistic when it comes to sharing and caring and looking after their own.
This is an excellent read for those who are interested in animal behaviour and altruism. it covers not only elephants but monkeys, dogs, birds and lions. Masson provides lots of evidence as proof of his thesis that animals are creatures who experience emotion, and that humans should alter their approach to what are sensitive and intelligent creatures.
2. Orangutans Are The Most Caring of Parents
Orangutans are in danger of becoming extinct in the wild through the actions of humans but if those who continue to destroy the habitat of this remarkable ape would only stop to take note of the care orangutan mothers show their babies perhaps they would end their destructive ways.
This remarkable ape whose name means 'old man of the woods' is one of the most expressive of mammals.
Youngsters are with the mother for an incredible 5 years, on average, during which time they learn all the skills necessary for adult life in the jungle forests. Mothers are extremely attentive to their babies' needs, risking their lives to protect them from predators and guarding precious space when others threaten.
It's this level of selfless care and disregard for self that suggests the orangutan is capable of altruistic behaviour when the need arises.
3. Vampire Bats Share Their Food
Bats are often held in low repute by humans because they are night creatures who fly in the dark, have a mistaken reputation for sucking human blood and live in smelly caves waiting to transform into evil vampires!
How wrong can we be. Bats are highly skilled fliers who use a sophisticated sonar mechanism for navigation. They feed on the wing, catching moths and other insects, and have organised social lives in communities. Some raise their young in special nurseries.
But one kind of bat, the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) shows incredible caring for others within its family group - and non family groups - by regurgitating blood meals and offering it to fellow bats who for one reason or another, haven't eaten that day.
This ensures that the colony survives and maintains strength, important factors in the life of a bat. How do we know that the vampire bat does this? Well, apart from observations in the field at roost - by zoologists - scientific evidence exists that supports the idea of reciprocal altruism in this particular bat.
Truly wondrous. At the University of Maryland biologists carried out experiments which involved the study of vampire bats at roost. Some were given food, others not. Those who hadn't eaten were given regurgitated food by other bats and closer study showed that the hungry bats were in no way demanding food from their peers, they were given it.
Proof that the common vampire bat, far from being a mini-monster, shows care and perhaps concern for fellow bats who are going hungry.
Altruism - of a kind
In various studies of animals, scientists have come up with two terms to help them categorise animal behaviour:
Kin Selection - this is helpful behaviour, for example sharing food, between family relatives in particular.
Reciprocal Altruism - based on behaviour related to the idea 'I will be willing to be altruistic now, if you are willing to be altruistic later.'
4. Dedication of The Deep Sea Octopus
The deep sea octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica) has been filmed at a depth of 4,583 feet off the coast of central California. Here a mother was discovered with a brood of recently laid eggs, around 165 of them attached to the side of a rocky ridge.
Incredibly, the film crew unit from Monterey visited the octopus 18 times over the next 53 months and at each visit the mother was still there in the same position, covering her precious brood. On the 18th visit the mother had gone but the hatchlings were out, 155 of them.
No other creature on the planet shows this kind of devotion to their eggs. As time progressed the divers in their submarine noticed the colour of the mother changing, from red purple to a ghostly grey. It seems the mother octopus weakens and never feeds.
Scientists believe the behaviour to be so extreme due to the low number of eggs laid for such a creature, the depth and coldness of the water, and fear of predators eating the young.
The ordinary octopus is a very intelligent creature with an ability to express great care for its young. The mother, laying between 50,000 and 200,000 eggs, shows real dedication during the 8 weeks of her life when she protects her potential babies.
Once the eggs have been laid in a safe place she will push currents of water over the eggs so they get enough oxygen, keeping them alive. So busy is the female octopus her food intake lowers and often mothers just fade away to nothing in an effort to keep the babies alive. Once they have hatched out she will die. Not many animals show such dedication.
The earwig is a clever and caring parent insect who, once the eggs are ready to burst, will help her babies break through the egg skin. In addition she then provides warmth with her body and cleans the babies to help prevent fungus and other bacteria from building up. Her regurgitated food enables the offspring to get much needed energy to carry them through their initial growth stages.
The earwig mother is an exceptionally intelligent insect, creating a nest especially for her young. So not really a creepy crawly at all!
6. Sand Grouse
The sand grouse of southern Africa displays amazingly caring behaviour by travelling long distances to fetch much needed water for its young. The male often flies miles to a fresh water lake where it will wade in and immerse itself in the life saving waters. Special feathers with extra barbules on help keep the water close to the bird's breast as it flies back to the nest.
When the young have had their fill, snuggling up close, the adult bird then dries off again before starting another water journey.
7. Selfless Acts of the Ants
Ants are not everyone's idea of a caring kind of creature but studies have shown that some ants have unbelievable habits and behaviours that could be construed as altruistic.
Worker ants for example care for their eggs by licking them and if needs be moving them to new cleaner safer chambers. They will often carry food and water in a separate stomach and share this with others who may not have enough.
Ants also carry the dead and diseased out of their nest thus helping keep the colony healthy and free of disease.
We know how well organised ant colonies are and how each ant has a specific role to play in keeping the community healthy. There is a danger of projecting human emotions and feelings onto the ant but how else can we explain these acts of selfless devotion except through our language?
Such acts cannot be measured or gauged, they can only be observed and described. An ant may be low down on the evolutionary scale but that doesn't exclude it from the altruistic scale.
8. Ringed Seal
Out in the freezing snow and ice of the Arctic the ringed seal has many enemies who would easily make a meal of the young. Polar bears and orca whales are amongst them. To help keep her pups safe the mother builds a neat snow cave or lair above the ice where her babies, hidden from view, can keep safe.
Inside she can feed and care for her offspring and help them grow into healthy young adults.
9. South African Bullfrog
Living up to 40 years and growing up to 8 inches in diameter this bullfrog eats lots of different creatures, from small mammals to other frogs. A true giant in the frog world.
What separates them from other bullfrogs is their exceptional care and bravery when looking after their eggs, which they guard against predators. They dig special trenches which help keep the hatched tadpoles free from danger, the adults standing up to snakes and other creatures looking for an easy meal. But the tadpoles also face danger. The male will sometimes eat the weaker ones!
10. Primates - Monkeys
The term 'If you scratch my back I'll scratch yours' could certainly be applied to the primates as they are well known for their grooming habits, where one monkey picks parasites from another's body. Not only is this a quick way to get a snack it helps bond individuals and eventually whole communities.
But is it altruistic behaviour? In a sense yes it is, because one monkey risks being attacked by a predator whilst de-bugging another. In another it's simply a way of getting on in primate life, of doing a job for someone and hoping that they in turn will reciprocate.
Research by evolutionary biologists Filippo Aureli and Gabriele Schino at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt that primates do groom each other in an altruistic fashion. Their studies showed that grooming takes place more often between unrelated monkeys more than those who were direct family.
Picking off those irritating parasites is pretty serious monkey business, as it leads to all round greater fitness for the social group.
Beautifully documented examples of how scientists and others are discovering more and more about feelings in animals, from chimps to fish to ants. Readers might also want to know more about the work of George John Romanes, Darwin's colleague, who wrote Animal Intelligence. Morell says he "argued that because animals could learn, they must have minds--the same argument that was used at the time to explain the existence of minds in humans." A must read for those with pets, especially dogs.
Can We Prove Altruism Exists in Wild Animals?
Pure altruism should be all about self sacrifice in the here and now, helping others for no apparent future reward or reciprocal act. But does this ideal sort of altruism exist within the human race let alone amongst the so called lower animals?
Perhaps not? Perhaps yes? It's a difficult one to call. It's tempting to view the actions of animals through the rose tinted lens of human emotion - we see one creature helping another for no reason other than empathy and caring and are then apt to call all animals altruistic to some degree.
I think there are genuine acts of altruism within some animal species. Scientific research has shown again and again that there is something at work amongst certain species, that animals are sensitive to the welfare of others. This is something which cannot be measured but does deserve to have appropriate language applied to it.
- Whether an act of care or altruism is purely a genetic urge is yet to be proved or disproved. Perhaps there is no definitive answer and never will be.
What seems to be true is that individual animals who show care, who help family and others, strengthen the bonds between members of the group. Evolution at its very best?
Do you think animals are capable of altruistic behaviour?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Andrew Spacey