A recent study focused on voles’ ability to show empathy found that prairie voles comfort their distressed loved ones in stressful situations. The research team used electric shocks on one vole to see whether its life-long mate would have a reaction.
Surprisingly, the stressed out vole was consoled by his mate as soon as the two animals were reunited. The vole licked and groomed its suffering partner for nearly 10 minutes in an attempt of relieving its stress.
It is the first time a study documents empathy in voles. Past studies had found signs of empathy in mammals such as dogs, chimps, elephants, and even other rodents. Four years ago, researchers at the University of Chicago found that rats can go at great lengths to free their entrapped mates despite the risk of losing a hearty launch.
Back then, researchers weren’t so sure about the implications of the study. Some of them interpreted the findings as a clear sign that rodents can show empathy, too, while other researchers speculated that rodents were in fact looking for social contact, so they were actually acting selfishly.
But measuring empathy cannot be done objectively. You can measure it or mark its presence from the animals’ behavior. This was the approach chosen by Larry Young and his fellow researchers at Emory University.
Young, who’s been studying voles for years, planned to see whether voles can be emphatic, as well. The team found that the consoling vole will mimic the behavior of its distressed fellow even though it hasn’t been directly affected by the electric shock. Moreover, the consoling creature grooms its afflicted mate in stressful situations, and its stress hormones jump to new levels when it suspects that another shock may affect its partner.
Although some may say that voles groom and lick their mates repeatedly to alleviate stress alone, the team argued that it isn’t the case. Researchers believe that the behavior is a clear sign of empathy in the furry animals because distressed voles do not engage in more grooming following an electric shock.
Other critics argued that the behavior was involuntarily triggered by the shocked vole by releasing pheromones which prompted the consoling vole to have a caring behavior. Study authors dismissed this hypothesis because voles comforted only cagemates or partners, showing no empathy for strangers.
Researchers also found that prairie voles, which lead a monogamous life, display a caring attitude towards their familiar ones, unlike meadow voles, which mate with perfect strangers and show no sign of consolation.
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