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Emory University

Scientists Say Prairie Voles Can Comfort Each Other

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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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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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