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Altruism : How Wild Animals Care For Their Own And Others

Updated on June 1, 2017
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Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts and nature.

Animals and Altruism

Are animals capable of displaying selfless concern for the well being of others, caring for those close to them without thought of individual reward? It's a question that's been asked by scientists and philosophers for centuries. The debate is still going on and I hope this article will help you decide whether or not you believe animals are capable of showing genuine altruism.

In other words, does altruism exist in the lifestyles of wild animals? And is it based on care, compassion and sympathy, or are they simply being selfish for their own good?

When a human cares for another human in a selfless way we are often moved and inspired. Acts of love and self sacrifice are a daily occurrence and are, it could be argued, vital for our self preservation as a species.

Studies by naturalists and scientists have shown that wild animals are capable of altruistic behaviour too. It seems to be a natural part of their make up. But is it altruism or selfishness?From insects to reptiles to the higher mammals some animals do seem to care for their own. And others.

Here are 10 examples that illustrate this surprisingly common attribute.

Elephants bonding using their trunks.
Elephants bonding using their trunks. | Source

1. Elephants

Elephants have the longest gestation time of any land animal -22 months - meaning that the bond between mother and baby is particularly strong. Experienced mothers in a herd often show care and concern for new mothers who need extra help with their babies. The veterans will take turns looking after the new baby, guiding it with their sensitive trunks, giving time for the new mother to gain energy so she has enough quality milk for her offspring.

There are also documented examples of adult elephants helping to rescue a baby elephant when it became stuck in deep mud at a watering hole in Africa. One or two carefully scraped the mud away from around the baby whilst another nudged it slowly so that it was able to break free.

Behaviour like this helps ensure the group survives and bonds the herd together.

Recent studies by Dr Joshua Plotnik at the University of Cambridge demonstrate beyond doubt that elephants do have a high level of cooperative ability on a par with those of chimpanzees. You can check out his findings in the National Academy of Sciences Journal.

As National Geographic correspondent Virgina Morell writes : 'Elephants help each other in distress, grieve for their dead, and feel the same emotions as each other - just like us.'

National Geographic 23.2.2014

Looking at the evidence it seems that elephants are to a degree altruistic when it comes to sharing and caring and looking after their own.

Vampire bats
Vampire bats | Source

2. Vampire Bats

Bats are often held in low repute by humans because they are night creatures who fly in the dark, have a mistaken reputation for sucking human blood and live in smelly caves waiting for Dracula to turn up!

How wrong can we be. Bats are highly skilled fliers who use a sophisticated sonar mechanism for navigation. They feed on the wing, catching moths and other insects, and have organised social lives in communities. Some raise their young in special nurseries.

But one kind of bat, the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) shows incredible caring for others within its family group - and non family groups - by regurgitating blood meals and offering it to fellow bats who for one reason or another, haven't eaten that day.

This ensures that the colony survives and maintains strength, important factors in the life of a bat. How do we know that the vampire bat does this? Well, apart from observations in the field at roost - by zoologists - scientific evidence exists that supports the idea of reciprocal altruism in this particular bat.

Truly wondrous. At the University of Maryland biologists carried out experiments which involved the study of vampire bats at roost. Some were given food, others not. Those who hadn't eaten were given regurgitated food by other bats and closer study showed that the hungry bats were in no way demanding food from their peers, they were given it.

Proof that the common vampire bat, far from being a mini monster, shows care and perhaps concern for fellow bats who are going hungry.

Orangutan mother and baby
Orangutan mother and baby | Source

3. Orangutan

Orangutans are in danger of becoming extinct through the actions of humans but if those who continue to destroy the habitat of this remarkable ape would only stop to take note of the care orangutan mothers show their babies perhaps they would end their destructive ways.

This remarkable ape whose name means 'old man of the woods' is one of most expressive of mammals.

Youngsters are with the mother for an incredible 5 years during which they learn all the skills necessary for adult life in the jungle forests. Mothers are extremely attentive to their babies' needs, risking their lives to protect them from predators and guarding precious space when others threaten.


Altruism - of a kind

In studies of animals scientists have come up with two terms to help them categorise animal behaviour:

Kin Selection - this is helpful behaviour, for example sharing food, between family relatives in particular.

Reciprocal Altruism - based on behaviour related to the idea 'I will be willing to be altruistic now, if you are willing to be altruistic later.'

Red Octopus
Red Octopus | Source
Deep Sea Octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica
Deep Sea Octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica | Source

4. The Deep Sea Octopus

The deep sea octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica) has been filmed at a depth of 4,583 feet off the coast of central California. Here a mother was discovered with a brood of recently laid eggs, around 165 of them attached to the side of a rocky ridge.

Incredibly, the film crew unit from Monterey visited the octopus 18 times over the next 53 months and at each visit the mother was still there in the same position, covering her precious brood. On the 18th visit the mother had gone but the hatchlings were out, 155 of them.

No other creature on the planet shows this kind of devotion to their eggs. As time progressed the divers in their submarine noticed the colour of the mother changing, from red purple to a ghostly grey. It seems the mother octopus weakens and never feeds.

Scientists believe the behaviour to be so extreme due to the low number of eggs laid for such a creature, the depth and coldness of the water, and fear of predators eating the young.

The ordinary octopus is a very intelligent creature with an ability to express great care for its young. The mother, laying between 50,000 and 200,000 eggs, shows real dedication during the 8 weeks of her life when she protects her potential babies.

Once the eggs have been laid in a safe place she will push currents of water over the eggs so they get enough oxygen, keeping them alive. So busy is the female octopus her food intake lowers and often mothers just fade away to nothing in an effort to keep the babies alive. Once they have hatched out she will die. Not many animals show such dedication.

Mother earwig with eggs and young
Mother earwig with eggs and young | Source

5. Earwig

The earwig is a clever and caring parent insect who, once the eggs are ready to burst, will help her babies break through the egg skin. In addition she then provides warmth with her body and cleans the babies to help prevent fungus and other bacteria from building up. Her regurgitated food enables the offspring to get much needed energy to carry them through their initial growth stages.

The earwig mother is an exceptionally intelligent insect, creating a nest especially for her young. So not really a creepy crawly at all!

Sand grouse
Sand grouse | Source

6. Sand Grouse

The sand grouse of southern Africa displays amazingly caring behaviour by travelling long distances to fetch much needed water for its young. The male often flies miles to a fresh water lake where it will wade in and immerse itself in the life saving waters. Special feathers with extra barbules on help keep the water close to the bird's breast as it flies back to the nest.

When the young have had their fill, snuggling up close, the adult bird then dries off again before starting another water journey.

Ants caring for their eggs
Ants caring for their eggs | Source

7. Ants

Ants are not everyone's idea of a caring kind of creature but studies have shown that some ants have unbelievable habits and behaviours that could be construed as altruistic.

Worker ants for example care for their eggs by licking them and if needs be moving them to new cleaner safer chambers. They will often carry food and water in a separate stomach and share this with others who may not have enough.

Ants also carry the dead and diseased out of their nest thus helping keep the colony healthy and free of disease.

Young Ringed Seal   (Pusa hispida botnica)
Young Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida botnica) | Source

8. Ringed Seal

Out in the freezing snow and ice of the Arctic the ringed seal has many enemies who would easily make a meal of the young. Polar bears and orca whales are amongst them. To help keep her pups safe the mother builds a neat snow cave or lair above the ice where her babies, hidden from view, can keep safe.

Inside she can feed and care for her offspring and help them grow into healthy young adults.

South African Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersas)
South African Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersas) | Source

9. South African Bullfrog

Living up to 40 years and growing up to 8 inches in diameter this bullfrog eats lots of different creatures, from small mammals to other frogs. A true giant in the frog world.

What separates them from other bullfrogs is their exceptional care and bravery when looking after their eggs, which they guard against predators. They dig special trenches which help keep the hatched tadpoles free from danger, the adults standing up to snakes and other creatures looking for an easy meal. But the tadpoles also face danger. The male will sometimes eat the weaker ones!

Monkeys grooming (Mucaca fuscata)
Monkeys grooming (Mucaca fuscata) | Source

10. Primates - Monkeys

The term 'If you scratch my back I'll scratch yours' could certainly be applied to the primates as they are well known for their grooming habits, where one monkey picks parasites from another's body. Not only is this a quick way to get a snack it helps bond individuals and eventually whole communities.

But is it altruistic behaviour? In a sense yes it is, because one monkey risks being attacked by a predator whilst de-bugging another. In another it's simply a way of getting on in primate life, of doing a job for someone and hoping that they in turn will reciprocate.

Research by evolutionary biologists Filippo Aureli and Gabriele Schino at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt that primates do groom each other in an altruistic fashion. Their studies showed that grooming takes place more often between unrelated monkeys more than those who were direct family.

Picking off those irritating parasites is pretty serious monkey business, as it leads to all round greater fitness for the social group.

Conclusion

Pure altruism should be all about self sacrifice in the here and now, helping others for no apparent future reward or reciprocal act. But does this ideal sort of altruism exist within the human race let alone amongst the so called lower animals?

Perhaps not? Perhaps yes? It's a difficult one to call. It's tempting to view the actions of animals through the rose tinted lens of human emotion - we see one creature helping another for no reason other than empathy and caring and are then apt to call all animals altruistic to some degree.

I think there are genuine acts of altruism within some animal species. Scientific research has shown again and again that there is something at work amongst certain species, that animals are sensitive to the welfare of others.

Whether that is purely a genetic urge is yet to be proved or disproved. What seems to be true is that individual animals who show care, who help family and others, strengthen the bonds between members of the group. Evolution at its very best?

Do you think animals are capable of altruistic behaviour?

See results

© 2015 Andrew Spacey

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  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 23 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the supportive visit Svetlana. Yes, most of the current research I looked at definitely points up empathy and reciprocal altruism and there is also evidence of kin altruism - these are what you might call scientifically verified. Random acts of pure altruism are the difficult ones to try and define - is the animal behaving this way because it is compassionate or because survival instincts of the group are the priority? Fascinating to think that the thin line is sometimes blurred.

  • kalinin1158 profile image

    Lana Zakinov 23 months ago from California

    Interesting! This is the subject that I'm very curious about, personally. I think most of the examples of animal altruism can be said to be kin altruism (and reciprocal altruism sometimes, so either way not "pure" altruism). But I always wondered why do dolphins help humans? There are so many documented cases of this phenomenon. Do they consider us their "kin"? Voted up!

  • chef-de-jour profile image
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    Andrew Spacey 24 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit and comment, much appreciated.

  • thumbi7 profile image

    JR Krishna 24 months ago from India

    Very well written hub with beautiful pictures and video.

    Voted up and shared

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 24 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Many thanks for the visit Chitrangada. The creatures out there continue to surprise, puzzle and make us wonder.

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 24 months ago from New Delhi, India

    This is such a wonderful hub with incredible pictures and video!

    Your article beautifully confirms the Altruistic behavior of some of these wild animals.

    I am very fond of watching the Discovery channels about wildlife and your hub seems like an extension of the animal life shown there. Most of the animals do not harm Humans unless attacked. There are many things we can learn from them, especially caring for their fellow species and their altruistic behavior.

    Thanks for sharing and voted up!

  • chef-de-jour profile image
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    Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you Ann, appreciate your visit. It is truly moving to watch some animals take time out to help others.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

    This is a great list of animals who care. I knew about the elephants and the octopus but not most of the rest. I saw a most touching tv documentary about elephants returning to the site of a dead relative, to grieve together.

    Fascinating, with good arguments on both sides for each example.

    Ann

  • chef-de-jour profile image
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    Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Buildreps, appreciated. Yes there is overwhelming evidence to show that certain animals care for others with selfless acts of compassion and welfare.

  • Buildreps profile image

    Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

    Beautiful very well crafted Hub, Andrew. You showed obvious in this Hub that compassion or empathy is not exclusively reserved for Homo Sapiens.

  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thanks for the visit, appreciate it. Yes, the octopus is altogether an incredible creature, with intelligent tentacles and a super brain.

  • peachpurple profile image

    peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

    Wow the octopus shows great sacrifice that could cost its life. If humans could so that, wouldn't it be great

  • chef-de-jour profile image
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    Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Katiadejuan, appreciate it very much. Interesting scenario you outline. The more I look into this subject the more I'm convinced that in some species altruistic behaviour isn't an exception it's the norm.

  • Katiadejuan profile image

    Katia De Juan 2 years ago from London, UK

    Loved this hub, Andrew.

    It reminds me of a documentary that I saw (I don't remember the title) in which appeared a group of primates where some of them were using rocks to crack open some nuts. Each monkey had his/her rock, except one, that didn't had any, so he was trying to open it slamming it into the ground, but he wasn't able to open it, so after a while he stopped and stood there with a sad face. Then suddenly, one of the others, who had been watching him during all the process, approached him and lent him the one he was using.

    Well, to me that's a clear prove of altruism, because in order for that to happen, firstly the monkey had to make use of his empathy to understand what was happening, then show altruism by renouncing his possibility to continue eating more nuts, to help the other.

  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

    Andrew, I loved this hub with the altruism descriptions and the lovely photos to match it. Very beautiful through and through. Voted up!

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