A new research shows that the prairie voles can console each other. The study was led by Larry Young from the University of Emory. Young has studied the voles for a long time and claims to have seen empathic behavior between these animals for many times.
The prairie voles have a brown or grey fur on their upper bodies and a yellow fur on their lower bodies. They have short ears and tails. They can be found in Canada and in the central United States. Their lifespan is never longer than two years and they are mainly herbivorous. They live in colonies and can show human resembling behavior.
For the study, two voles who where a pair for a long time, were put in two different cages. One of them was given an electric shock and afterwards the two voles were put in the same cage. The other prairie vole started to groom and lick the distressed vole and continued this treatment for approximately 10 minutes. This is not the first time that empathy is suggested to exist between animals. A 2012 research showed that rats would rather free their mates from their cages, than eat chocolate. That study raised some controversies, as not everyone wanted to accept the findings as accurate.
The main issue with these types of studies is that empathy is hard to measure. Young said that he and his team tried to come close to some kind of empathy measurement. James Burkett, who was involved in the study noticed that the vole copied the behavior of its partner. When a vole would feel stressed, the other vole would start grooming itself, like he was stressed out. Also, when the vole would hear electric shock noises, it would freeze. Not only the external behavior matched the one of its partner, but the levels of stress hormones increased as well.
Some skeptics would say that they are simply copying each other’s behavior, but the researchers observed that the vole who was shocked didn’t try to groom its partner more than usual. But that has been seen in the empathic partner. Another argument that the skeptics would bring is that the rodents just released pheromones, which made them feel more caring towards the vole observed. But the researchers have a proof against that as well, as the voles only showed empathy towards their cage mates or partners. This shows that their empathy is biased. According to Young, the prairie voles are the only ones of their family to show empathy. For example, the prairie voles can console each other but the meadow voles cannot.
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