Emory University
Emory University

Scientists Say Prairie Voles Can Comfort Each Other

Emory University
Emory University

We’re not the only animals that get by with a little help from our friends. A report published last week in the journal Science shows that prairie voles can sense distress in other voles and will rush to comfort them, just like humans.

Scientists are hesitant to ascribe emotions or motivations to non-human animals. As a result, the general consensus has become “animals don’t have emotions,” a statement that tends to rankle both animal lovers and certain ethologists (animal behaviorists).

Primatologist Frans de Waal is one of those people. He’s spent decades studying nonhuman primates and other animals, and believes the human capacities for morality and empathy are far from unique.

The difficulty lies in proving it. Designing an experiment that will unequivocally demonstrate a certain emotion is extremely difficult for two reasons: first, we can’t just ask other animals what’s going on in their heads, and second, such an experiment would have to control for a lot of other variables. The results would have to show that the animals weren’t motivated by anything else, which is pretty hard to pull off. There have been some successes; one study showed that dogs enjoy being generous with their friends, while another showed that the reverse is true for capuchin monkeys.

The recent prairie vole study makes another compelling case for animal emotion. The experiment included not only watching pairs of roly-poly prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) to see how they behaved, but also analyzing their brain chemistry and activity. Prairie voles are an especially social species, living in colonies that would definitely benefit from empathetic behaviors.

The researchers studied the voles in pairs and found that when one vole was distressed, its partner would respond by rushing to groom it. Humans and other primates tend to console each other with hugs and kisses, but for voles, grooming is the way to go. Voles who knew each other were quicker and more likely to approach and groom, a behavior that mirrors the gift-giving dogs’ preference for their friends over strangers.

The comforting behavior had both chemical and anatomical components. The experimenters found that oxytocincommonly called the “love hormone” for its association with romantic and maternal love in humanswas a major driver of the voles’ empathetic impulses. When the scientists shut off oxytocin signaling in the voles’ brains, the rodents became less concerned about their partners.

The researchers also found that seeing other voles upset or in trouble activated a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortexthe same part of the brain that gets to work when a human sees another human in distress. This type of brain activity has been shown in non-human primates before, but never in other animals.

Empathy expert de Waal, an author on the paper, believes the study to be an important step in the right direction. “Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives,” he says in a press release. “These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.”

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13 Facts About Opossums
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Opossums, which include the roughly 100 species in the order Didelphimorphia, are some of the most misunderstood animals in the Americas. They’re often thought of as dimwitted, dirty creatures whose most impressive trick is acting like roadkill. The truth is just the opposite: Opossums are smarter, cleaner, and more beneficial to humans than many of their woodland neighbors. Read on for more opossum facts.

1. OPOSSUMS AND POSSUMS AREN’T THE SAME ANIMAL.

In North America, opossum and possum describe the same thing, but in Australia the word possum refers to a completely different animal. Among the most well known of their respective types are the Virginia opossum and the brushtail possum. Both are small to medium sized, omnivorous marsupials, but the similarities end there. The possum looks like a cute cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla and it belongs to a different order than the North American mammal that shares (most of) its name. Despite the potential for confusion, possum is accepted as the shortened version of opossum in this part of the world (and if you see the word possum in this list, you can assume it’s referring to the animal from the Americas).

2. THEY’RE THE ONLY MARSUPIALS FOUND NORTH OF MEXICO.

Marsupials—mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches—are absent from much of the world, and in Canada and the United States opossums are the sole representatives of the group. Like other marsupials, mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped offspring (called joeys) that immediately crawl into a pouch where they live and nurse during their first months of life. Only once they’ve grown big and strong enough do they venture out, transitioning between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they mature into adults.

3. THEY CAN’T CHOOSE WHEN THEY PLAY DEAD.

Possum playing dead.
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Perhaps the most famous characteristic of the opossum is its tendency to play dead in front of predators. When the animal experiences intense fear in the face of danger, it seizes up and flops to the ground where it can remain for hours staring blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue. It’s an impressive defensive mechanism, but its effectiveness can’t be chalked up to the possum’s acting skills. Possums have no control over when they play dead or for how long they do it: The comatose-like state is an involuntary reaction triggered by stress.

4. AN OFFENSIVE ODOR SELLS THE PERFORMANCE.

A picture of a possum playing dead doesn’t really do it justice. To get the full experience, you need to be standing over to it to smell the putrid odor it emits when pretending to be a corpse. The smelly substance it secretes from its anus is just one more reason for foxes and bobcats to look for their dinner elsewhere.

5. THEY SLOW THE SPREAD OF LYME DISEASE.

Even if possums aren’t the cutest creatures in the forest, they should be a welcome addition to your backyard. Unlike other mammals that carry ticks, and therefore spread Lyme Disease, possums gobble up 90 percent of the ticks that attach to them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. That means the more possums that are in your area, the fewer ticks you’ll encounter.

6. THEIR MEMORIES ARE SURPRISINGLY SHARP.

Possum looking up at table.
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Opossums have impressive memories—at least when it comes to food. Researchers found that possums are better at remembering which runway led to a tasty treat than rats, cats, dogs, and pigs. They can also recall the smell of toxic substances up to a year after trying them.

7. THEY’RE IMMUNE TO MOST SNAKE VENOM.

While most animals look at a snake and see danger, a possum sees its next meal. The animals are immune to the venom of nearly every type of snake found in their native range, the one exception being the coral snake. Possums take advantage of this adaptation by chowing down on snakes on a regular basis.

Researchers have been trying to harvest possums’ antivenom powers for decades. A few years ago, a team of scientists made progress on this front when they recreated a peptide found in possums and and found that mice given the peptide and rattlesnake venom were successfully protected from the venom’s harmful effects.

8. THEY ALMOST NEVER GET RABIES.

While possums aren’t totally immune to rabies (a few cases have been documented), finding a specimen with the disease is extremely unlikely. Marsupials like possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America—in other words, their bodies don’t provide a suitable environment for the virus.

9. THEIR TAIL ACTS AS A FIFTH APPENDAGE.

Baby opossum hanging from a tree branch by its tail.
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Opossums are one of a handful of animals with prehensile tails. These appendages are sometimes used as an extra arm: They can carry grass and leaves for building nests or grip the sides of trees to provide extra stability while climbing. Baby possums can even use their tails to hang from branches upside down as they’re often depicted doing in cartoons. But it’s a myth that possums sleep this way: Their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a short amount of time.

10. THEY’RE CONSTANTLY SELF-GROOMING.

Thanks to their whole acting-and-smelling-like-a-corpse routine, opossums aren’t known as the most sanitary animals in nature. But they take cleanliness seriously: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife writes that possums, like housecats, use their tongue and paws to groom themselves frequently and thoroughly. Possums largely lack sweat glands, and this behavior is believed to help them cool down. It also has the added effect of rendering them odorless (when they’re not secreting stinky predator-repellant, that is).

11. THEIR EYES AREN’T TOTALLY BLACK.

Close-up on opossum's face.
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One of the opossum’s most recognizable features is its pair of opaque eyes. Opossum eyes do have whites and irises, but because their pupils are so large, their eyes appear completely black from a distance. The exaggerated pupil dilation is thought to help the nocturnal animals see after the sun goes down.

12. THEY’RE SOCIAL CREATURES.

It was long assumed that opossums like to keep to themselves, but a study published in the journal Biology Letters suggests they have a social side. Researchers at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil observed some possums in captivity sharing dens even if they weren’t mates. In one case, 13 white-eared opossums of various age groups were cohabiting the same space. The scientists suspect that male and female possums living in the wild may even build nests together as a way to trigger the female’s reproductive hormones.

13. THEIR REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS ARE COMPLICATED.

The way it gives birth and raises its young isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about the opossum's reproductive life. Females have two vaginal tracts and two uteri, and males in turn have a forked or bifurcated penis. This is fairly typical for marsupials, but when European colonizers first landed in North America centuries ago, they didn’t know what to make of the confusing genitalia. One explanation they came up with was that male opossums impregnated females through the nose.

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Hero Crayfish Cheats Death By Removing Its Own Claw to Escape Pot of Boiling Water
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There remains a perpetual debate over the ethical consequences of taking a crustacean and boiling it alive. In early 2018, Switzerland actually made it illegal to give living lobsters a scalding hot bath. (Instead, chefs are expected to stun them electronically before submersion.) Scientists can’t reach a conclusion over whether decapods feel pain—or if we can even define what that means for them.

While humans argue, some clawed sacrifices are taking action. A crayfish filmed by a Facebook user in China is making the internet rounds and being hailed as a hero after taking dramatic measures to escape a boiling pot of water.

In the footage, the crayfish appears to be unable to extricate its left appendage from a bubbling vat of doom. Rather than succumb, the crayfish uses its right claw to sever its compromised claw and scurry off. At 11 seconds, it’s the best summary of a Saw film possible.

“Juike,” the user who originally posted the video to the Weibo social media site, says he has taken the crafty invertebrate home and put him in an aquarium as a pet. The tiny survivalist may even regrow his lost limb, as crawfish are able to do, although it might not reach its former size.

Crayfish are in inherent danger of being turned into soup in China, where specialty restaurants devoted to their preparation are popping up. Some observers believe their popularity is due to diners having to step away from phones and social media in order to use both hands to peel away at their shells.

[h/t BBC]

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