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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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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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