Are Dogs Empathetic? It Depends on the Individual Dog

iStock
iStock

You may be confident that your dog would save you from a burning building, but until recently, there wasn't much science to back you up. A new study reported by The New York Times takes a deeper look at the canine capacity for empathy. "Timmy’s in the Well: Empathy and Prosocial Helping in Dogs," published in the journal Learning & Behavior, suggests that the compulsion to help a human in distress may not be universal in dogs, but it is present in some.

For the study, researchers at Macalester College in Minnesota recruited 34 mature dogs. The test subjects varied in size and breed: The one thing they had in common was that they all had human owners. Their humans were shut away in a room with a window and a magnetically sealed door that could easily be opened with a nose or paw. To see what it would take for the dogs to break in, researchers told the owners to either hum, say "help" in a neutral tone, or say "help" while sounding distressed and crying.

The results indicate that not every dog has what it takes to be a hero. Only half of the dogs opened the door to reach their humans, and they were no more likely to act when their owners called for help than when they hummed a song.

But that doesn't necessarily mean your dog wouldn't feel empathy if it saw you in danger. When dogs did open the door, they reacted more quickly to the distressed sounds than the happy ones. And many of the dogs that stayed put still exhibited signs of stress when they heard their owners crying. In fact, they were even more anxious than the dogs who sprang into action, suggesting they may have been paralyzed by fear.

This reflects what other researchers have observed in humans: The people who acutely relate to the pain of someone in peril can be less likely to help them.

The study authors write:

"Based on this result, it appears that adopting another’s emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door. One must both adopt that emotional state then suppress their own distress, as openers in the distress condition in contrast to non-openers seem to have done, before they are capable of providing help."

But if your dog doesn't come to your rescue right away the next time you cry out, don't automatically assume it's too overwhelmed with empathy to act. There were also dogs in the study that didn't show any stress at all or make any effort to open the door when faced with their crying owner.

[h/t The New York Times]

Middle School Student Discovers Megalodon Tooth Fossil on Spring Break

iStock.com/Mark Kostich
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

A few million years ago, the megalodon was the most formidable shark in the sea, with jaws spanning up to 11 feet wide and a stronger bite than a T. Rex. Today the only things left of the supersized sharks are fossils, and a middle school student recently discovered one on a trip to the beach, WECT reports.

Avery Fauth was spending spring break with her family at North Topsail Beach in North Carolina when she noticed something buried in the sand. She dug it up and uncovered a shark tooth the length of her palm. She immediately knew she had found something special, and screamed to get her family's attention.

Her father recognized the megalodon tooth: He had been searching for one for 25 years and had even taught his three daughters to scour the sand for shark teeth whenever they went to the beach. Avery and her sisters found a few more shark teeth that day from great whites, but her megalodon fossil was by far the most impressive treasure from the outing.

Megalodons dominated seas for 20 million years before suddenly dying out 3 million years ago. They grew between 43 and 82 feet long and had teeth that were up to 7.5 inches long—over twice the size of a great white's teeth. They're thought to be the largest sharks that ever lived.

Megalodon teeth have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, but they're still a rare find. Avery Fauth plans to keep her fossil in a special box at home.

[h/t WECT]

Watch the Denver Zoo’s New Baby Sloth Cuddle Up With Its Mom

Denver Zoo
Denver Zoo

If you’re a sucker for itty, bitty, furry animals, then you’ll want to drop whatever it is you’re doing and check out this video of the Denver Zoo’s newest resident. Uploaded by The Denver Post, the video shows a week-old sloth clinging to its mother, and it’s almost too cute to handle.

The healthy baby, whose name and sex have not yet been determined, was born on April 11 to its proud sloth parents: 23-year-old Charlotte Greenie and 28-year-old Elliot. It also has an older sister, named Baby Ruth, who was born in January of last year. Dad and Baby Ruth are “temporarily off-exhibit” to give mom and her newborn baby the chance to rest and bond in their habitat—an indoor aviary that's part of the zoo's Bird World exhibit.

The baby belongs to one of six species of sloth called the Linne's two-toed sloth, which is native to the rainforests of South America and are not currently considered threatened. Unlike their distant relatives the three-toed sloths, two-toed sloths are mostly nocturnal creatures. They also tend to move faster than their three-clawed counterparts, although fast is putting it generously.

Like many things sloths do, the baby was slow to arrive. Zoo officials predicted that Charlotte would give birth as early as January, but the expected due date may have been a miscalculation.

“Sloth due dates are notoriously challenging to predict because sloths are primarily active at night and we rarely observe their breeding,” the zoo said in a statement. “Our animal care team closely monitored Charlotte for months to ensure that she and the baby were healthy and gaining the appropriate amount of weight.”

The baby is expected to cling to its mother for at least six months. Zoo officials say the best time to visit mom and baby is in the late afternoon, when Charlotte is more likely to be active.

[h/t The Denver Post]

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