Rats, Sperm Whales, and Altrusim

The following report comes from Discovery News, and while it’s a bit old, I think its relevance and implications remain secure.

Researchers started by housing 30 rats together in pairs, each duo sharing the same cage for two weeks. Then, they moved them to a new cage where one rat was held in a restraining device while the other could roam free.

The free rat could see and hear his (or her — six of the rats were female) trapped buddy, and appeared more agitated while the entrapment was going on.

The door to the trapping enclosure was not easy to open, but most rats figured it out within three to seven days. Once they knew how, they went straight to the door to open it every time they were put in the cage.

To test the rats’ true bond to their cagemates, researchers also ran the experiment with toys in the restraint to see if the rats would free the fake stuffed rats like they did their comrades. They did not.

“We are not training these rats in any way,” said first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal.

“These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We’re not showing them how to open the door, they don’t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it’s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

Even when researchers rearranged the experiment so that the trapped rat would be set free into another enclosure, away from his hero friend, the rats still opened the door, indicating they were not motivated by companionship.

“There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats,” Bartal said. “In the rat model world, seeing the same behavior repeated over and over basically means that this action is rewarding to the rat.”

This sort of behavior is perhaps unexpected, give that most people would hardly think of rats (mere pests that they are) as being capable of much sentience, let alone selflessness. Not only does this challenge  the notion that altruism is the sole purview of advanced cognitive capacity, but it goes against the popular perception that living things are concerned only with their own self-interest and survival.

There’s clearly nothing to gain from freeing another rat, other than the apparent “satisfaction” of alleviating the suffering of another living thing.  But is there a limit to this behavior? What would the rats do if given a more enticing alternative to freeing their comrade?

In one final test to truly measure the resolve of the rats, scientists presented them with a pile of chocolate chips in the cage. The rats were not hungry, and in prior experiments showed they liked chocolate because they would eat it instead of rat chow given the chance.

Still, free rats tended to act benevolently. Even if they munched on a few chips first, they would then free their pal and allow him to eat the remaining chips.

“It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he want(s) to, and he does not. We were shocked,” said co-author Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology.

So even when given an irresistible temptation to spurn their friend, the rats still tended to prioritize the well-being of the other rat. In fact, they furthermore shared in the goodies, even though they could easily hog them after having done their part.

Rats are hardly the only animals to demonstrate this sort of behavior. Just about every social species that’s been studied – from dolphins to monkeys – have displayed similar behavior. Most recently there was a discovery that a group of sperm whales,  a species widely perceived as aggressive, had adopted a deformed dolphin.

Behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause discovered this unique phenomenon when they set out to observe sperm whales off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. Upon arriving there, they discovered a whale group of adult sperm whales, several whale calves, and an adult male bottlenose dolphin. Over the next eight days, the pair observed the dolphin with the whales six more times, socializing and even nuzzling and rubbing members of the group. At times, the sperm whales seemed merely to tolerate the dolphin’s affection, while at others, they reciprocated. “It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason,” Wilson reports to ScienceNOW. “They were being very sociable.”

This gregarious dolphin was easily recognizable by its spinal malformation, a rare spinal curvature that gave the dolphin’s back half an “S” shape. This malformation did not seem to affect the dolphin’s overall health, but  was likely the reason that the dolphin joined up with the sperm whales in the first place. In the highly social and clique-based world of dolphins, such a disfigurement could have given the dolphin low social status, or may have prevented the dolphin from fitting in and keeping up with its peers. “Sometimes some individuals can be picked on,” Wilson says. “It might be that this individual didn’t fit in, so to speak, with its original group.” The deformed dolphin could perhaps better keep up with the sperm whales, which swim more slowly, and could stay by their side at all times, as sperm whales always assign a “babysitter” to remain at the surface with the calves while the other adults dive deep to feed.

Could there be anything in it for the sperm whales? It’s possible there is a mutual benefit, as the article notes towards the end. Why else would they accept the member of another species into their cohesive group, let alone one that has “disabilities”?

While there are several likely possibilities for the dolphin’s advantage in the match, the whales’ reason for the adoption is less clear — there is no obvious advantage that the whales could gain by adding the dolphin to their group. Sperm whales have never been seen being affectionate to other species, and, further, scientists say that bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales often do not get along, as the dolphins have been known to chase and harass the whales and their calves.

Of course, there are some caveats to keep in mind. For starters, it’s still uncertain what the sperm whales’ motivations are, and as tempting as it is to view it as an act of compassion, it’s simply too soon too tell. Then there’s the fact that this is an isolated incident, and can hardly be extrapolated to represent the norm.

Still, this and the previous rat experiment suggests that there is something innate within other social species that seems to cause what we would otherwise call altruistic or compassionate behavior. This is definitely something that should be studied more, if only to give animals more credit for sentience, and thus more rights.

In any case, it makes sense that social species would have some innate inclination to help one of their own, since our individual survival is dependent on the group’s well-being. We depend on each other’s cooperation to thrive, so generosity is often a win-win for everyone. Maybe even altruism, which requires personal sacrifice, may confer some sort of advantage. Regardless,  I this suggests that morality does indeed have some natural origin, given that empathy and a sense of solidarity seems to underpin most moral actions.



One comment on “Rats, Sperm Whales, and Altrusim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s