Are Dogs Empathetic? It Depends on the Individual Dog

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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]

A Python Swallowed a Crocodile Whole—and a Photographer Was There to Capture It All

KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images
KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images

As long as it can fit through their elastic jaws, there's not much pythons won't eat. This genus of snakes has been known to swallow everything from small bears to porcupines. As Live Science reports, a python was recently spotted eating a crocodile in Australia—and the disturbing encounter was caught on camera.

On May 31, 2019, the Australian nonprofit GG Wildlife Rescue Inc. shared photos a kayaker named Martin Muller captured of a snake inhaling a crocodile outside Mount Isa in Queensland. The snake was an olive python—a native Australian species that's found exclusively on the continent. Pythons can subdue large prey by wrapping their powerful bodies around it and constricting the animal until it suffocates. Killing a large, aggressive predator like a freshwater crocodile is only half the job. Once its prey is ready to eat, the python opens its jaw, which can stretch several times larger than its head, and gradually consumes its meal, a process that can take hours.

The images below offer a rare look at this brutal act of nature. Muller captured the entire scene, from the python wrangling the croc to the gluttonous feeding that takes place afterwards. The last photos in the series show the python with a large, lumpy bulge in its belly—a sign of its success.

Pythons have been spotted eating crocodiles and alligators in the past, and it doesn't always end well for them. In 2005, a Burmese python in Florida—where they're an invasive species—burst open after trying to swallow an alligator whole. If this python spotted in Australia can stomach its meal, the croc will potentially sustain the snake for months.

[h/t Live Science]

An Underpass for Turtles in Wisconsin Is Saving Dozens of the Little Guys’ Lives

Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images
Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images

Why did the turtle cross the road? Because an underground tunnel made it safe to do so.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to construct a tunnel beneath Highway 66, hoping to cut down on high turtle mortality rates, reports Robert Mentzer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The tunnel, with Jordan Pond on one side and wetlands on the other, was a noble venture, but the turtles had no way of knowing it was a crossing point rather than a dark and potentially dangerous hole. So Pete Zani, herpetologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, installed aluminum flashing outside of each opening, which would reflect the sky and let turtles know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Zani also installed grates above the tunnel to make it less shadowy, and a small cul-de-sac in a nearby piece of the fencing to encourage turtles who had missed the tunnel to turn around.

Zani and his team found that in the first year after construction, 85 percent fewer turtles were killed on the road, and no baby turtles were among the casualties. In the last few years combined, only 40 turtles died, compared to 66 deaths in 2015 alone.

That’s great news for local turtles, of course, and it’s great news for local humans, too. The intersection in question is always busy with truckers, commuters, and families en route to Jordan Pond, and turtle crossing can exacerbate traffic congestion and increase the chance of accidents.

Not all turtles have caught on, however, and it looks like some might never get the memo. Zani found that about 30 percent of snapping turtles and 20 percent of painted turtles make it through the tunnel, and those numbers have been consistent each year since construction. “They either get it or they don’t,” Zani told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other animals are getting it, too. As part of the experiment, Zani set up a turtle-wrangling program in which students monitored trail cameras for turtle activity outside the underpass. In photos captured by the cameras, they noticed that rodents, mink, skunks, raccoons, and even house cats were traveling by turtle tunnel.

[h/t Wisconsin Public Radio]

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