Altruism refers to a selfless helping act, wherein the primary intention of the helper is to relieve the other person from distress. The altruistic person does not seek any rewards such as gratitude, praise, or recognition in exchange for the help rather, it is voluntary and motivated by the helper’s concerns for the well-being of the person receiving the help. The concept of altruism is not just seen in humans, but many examples show that altruism is also observed in animals. Although the cognition abilities of animals and humans are widely different, it does not mean that altruism can not be observed in animals. The motivation behind showing altruistic behaviour in animals might be different from the motivation behind showing altruism in humans. In this article, we’ll learn about the concept of altruism in animals through various real-life examples, and try to understand whether animals show altruistic behaviour or not.
Mechanism of Altruism in Animals
There are several ways in which the animals can help the other. Mechanism of altruism in animals refers to the way of altruism in animals, i.e., how the animals show altruistic behaviour towards the other members. The mechanism can be broadly divided into two categories, i.e., direct mechanism, and indirect mechanism.
1. Direct Mechanism
In this mechanism, all the altruistic actions of the helper directly benefit the person on the receiver end. The direct mechanism usually occurs in the case of a lesser number of receivers, which eventually allows the altruistic actions to benefit the intended receiver only. Following is how the direct mechanism can be seen.
In this method, the helper helps the receiver in feeding. If any member of the group is sick, injured, or not able to get the food due to any reason, the other members of the group help the hungry member by sharing their food. This behaviour is observed in many animals including vampire bats, wild dogs, and ravens. The act is altruistic if the animals who are helping in feeding do not differentiate whether the receiver is closely related to them or not.
Protecting someone’s life is considered a high level of altruism. In this mechanism of help, the animals protect the lives of the other individuals that may or may not belong to the group or the class of species of the helper. This type of behaviour is generally seen in large vertebrates as they are capable of protecting small-sized species from the attack of predators. To protect the other member or species, the helper animal comes in the way when the predators try to attack the other animals. By doing so, the helper attracts the attention of the predator to itself and eventually, the risk of the life of the other species reduces. This can be considered true altruism because the helper is protecting someone else’s life at the expense of their own life. The animal who is helping can not predict whether it will be able to save the other individual or not, but it still decides to intervene in the situation to protect the other.
Like protection, guarding is also observed in large vertebrates. In this method the animal guard the offsprings or the eggs of the other members of the group in the absence of the parents of that offsprings or eggs.
2. Indirect Mechanism
In the indirect mechanism of altruism, the actions of the helper do not directly benefit the individual receiver a large number of members benefit through the action of the helper. Following is how indirect altruism is generally observed.
In this mechanism, the members of the group alert each other about the feasting or the attack of the predators by giving loud warning calls. By analysing these loud calls the members of the group get alert and save themselves from the predators. The species that do not belong to the animal that is giving the alarming calls also get alerted if they can decode that calls. The animal that gives the warning calls attracts the attention of the predator itself risking its life for the safety of the member of its group. This act of altruism contrasts Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. The alarming phenomenon was then explained by a new theory of the WD Hamilton, which suggests that the animals alarm others because of their motivation to pass the genes of their fellow relatives to the next generation which ensures the survival of their species.
Altruism Examples in Animals
Following are the examples of some of the animals that are believed to show altruism.
Elephants are well known for displaying altruism. There are several examples available that show the strong strength of the bond between the mother and the baby elephant. Theorists suggest that the reason could be their longest gestation time (22 months), due to which the mother and the baby share a strong bond. Mother elephants are known for not only helping their babies but also the babies of their fellow members. The new mothers are taken care of by the experienced mothers of the groups in nursing the newly born. The experienced mothers help the newly born handle their sensitive trunks until the mother of the newly born gains energy to take care of her offspring. There are several examples available, where the adult elephants are seen helping the baby elephant, and even the human kids who get stuck in the mud or the water.
A study conducted by the Dr Joshua of the University of Cambridge showed that elephants show a high level of altruism. Their cooperative abilities and concerns for the group members make them far more altruistic than other species that are considered to possess high degrees of altruism, i.e., chimpanzees. This study is mentioned in the National Academy of Science Journal.
According to an Author and contributor to National Geography, Virginia Morell
Elephants helps each other in distress, grieve for their dead, and feel the same emotions as each other, just like us’
Octopus shows extreme care towards their young ones, they don’t hesitate to show the altruistic behaviour for the well being of their babies. This can be understood through the behaviour of the mother octopus as filmed by some researchers of the Monterey. These researchers have filmed the behaviour of the mother octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica) lying 4583 feet down on the central California coast. The researchers observed a mother lying over recently laid (nearly 165) eggs. Over the 53 months, the researchers visited that coast 18 times to check the behaviour of the mother octopus and they were amazed to see that every time they visited, the mother was found in the same position covering her precious eggs. The researchers found that the colour of the mother starts changing to the ghostly-grey from its original colour of red-purple. They found that the mother never fed and has become weakened. This kind of devotion towards its eggs is not generally seen by any other creature. On their 18th visit, they found that 155 hatchlings were out and the mother was gone. In the effort to protect their eggs, most of the time the mother octopus ends up sacrificing her life till the time the eggs hatched out. According to scientists, the mother octopus shows this behaviour due to the fear of predators attacking her young ones, the less number of laid eggs, and to protect the eggs from the coldness of the deep water.
Orangutans are the natives of the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia and are largely found in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. They are also known as the ‘old man of the woods.’ This species of great apes are on the verge of extinction due to the various activities of human that is destroying their natural habitat. Perhaps they would end up destroying their habitat if they are being aware of the care and devotion that the mother orangutans show towards their babies. The mother orangutans take care of her babies for nearly 5 years after their birth, and she teaches them all the skills to survive in the jungle. Mother orangutans are extremely conscious of the well being of babies and there are various incidents reported by the researchers where the mother orangutans were found risking their life for their babies to protect them from the predators. An incident in a zoo in japan is an optimum example of the altruistic behaviour of the orangutans; Happy, a 21 years old orangutan was found giving his food to the hungry chimpanzee present in the nearby cage. The orangutans and chimpanzees are not even closely related yet orangutans helped the hungry chimpanzee by giving him his own food. Also, there are several examples where they are observed taking care of the babies of the other animals, that may or may not belong to their species. These type of examples of their selfless behaviour suggests that orangutans possess altruism.
- You must have seen the monkeys picking parasites from each other’s bodies. Well, it’s a quick way for monkeys to have a snack (parasites), and it also acts as a way to unite their whole community. You might be wondering whether we can call it an altruistic behaviour or not. According to the Filippo Aureli and Gabriele Schino, the evolutionary biologists of Liverpool John Moores University, UK this behaviour of monkeys grooming each other is altruistic behaviour. It has been found that the grooming behaviour is mostly seen in the unrelated monkeys rather than the closely related ones (the monkeys directly belonging to a family). Also, while grooming other monkeys they tend to get distracted from the predators and are more likely to lose their life yet monkeys take this grooming thing very seriously. Monkeys seem to follow the phrase “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” as they are more likely to groom the monkeys who had previously groomed them, hence this behaviour of monkeys can be explained through the reciprocating approach, i.e., the individual is more likely to pay back in future what he/she has received from the someone in the past.
- Vervet monkeys warn the other monkeys by giving alarm calls in case of a predator attack. They risk their lives in doing this as they grab the attention of the predators, and their chances of being attacked by them increase. Hence, this act can be considered pure altruism as the Vervet monkeys are helping their fellow monkeys by risking their own lives.
Ants are considered one of the most caring and altruistic creatures because of their selfless helping behaviour. Ants are known for their characteristics of developing well-organized colonies, where each ant dedicatedly plays its role to ensure the safety and the wellness of its colony. For example, the worker ants took care of the eggs of the queen ant and shift them to safer places whenever needed. The worker ants also store the food and the water in their other stomach and share this with the hungry or the sick ants. Ants also drag the diseased or the dead ants out of their community to keep it healthy and safe.
6. Humpback Whales
Another example of altruism in animals can be understood through a 2009 incident of humpback whales. This incident was captured by the ecologist Robert Pitman in the waters of Antarctica. In this incident when a killer whale began to attack a seal lying on a block of small ice floating over the sea, two humpback whales appeared for its rescue. One of the humpback whales rolled over and allowed the seal to come over its stomach. The humpback seal even protected the seal from slipping into the water from its stomach, and in this way, it protected the seal from the killer way. There was not any self-benefit for the humpback whale in saving the seal, yet it rescued the seal. It was not the only incident where the Humpback whales were observed protecting the seal, they are often observed protecting the seal from the predators, and this behaviour of them is considered altruism.
Chimpanzees are popularly known for their altruistic behaviour. They are not only seen helping their close relatives but also humans. A study to check the altruistic behaviour of the chimpanzees was conducted by the psychologist Sebastian Grüneisen and Martin Schmelz at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. In this study, six chimpanzees were trained at the Leipzig zoo to play a game of sharing. All the chimpanzees were paired with their partners and they were given the four choices. Choice A will give them a banana pallet, choice B will give the pallet to their partner (subject), choice C will give the pallets both to itself and the partner, and choice D will allow them the option to allow the partner (subject) to choose out of the four choices. They have to pull one of the four ropes to choose any specific option. Without the knowledge of the partner chimpanzees (subjects), the female chimpanzee named Tai that always began the game was trained to always select the last option, i.e., giving up her turn and allowing her partner to choose an option out of the four choices. Now, from the point of view of Tai’s partner, Tai had made a risky choice as she has a risk that she can lose the entire banana pallet. Several trials were conducted in the experiment, and it was found that 75 per cent of the time the partners (subjects) selected choice C, which offers the banana pallets to both the partners. This shows that the chimpanzees valued their partner’s decision of risking their food. Now, the researcher wanted to check that will the subject willing to display the same act of kindness if it will cost them their food. The researcher repeated the study, but this time when Tai gave up her turn, the partners had the option to either give themselves 4 banana pallets or give their partner and themselves 3 banana pallets. It was found that 44% of the time, the subjects selected to sacrifice, i.e., giving themselves and their partner 3 banana pallets as compared to the 17% of the time when instead of the Tai, the researchers made the first choice. This study clearly shows that chimpanzees feel compelled to help if someone had done a favour to them even if it cost them something.
8. Vampire Bats
Vampires bats are the species that live in the colonies and feed on the blood of animals such as horses, cattle, and pigs. The researchers of the University of California, San Diago studied altruism in vampire bats. The research shows that the vampire bats that are well-fed, share the blood of their hunt with the hungry vampire bats, and with the vampire bats who gave them the blood of their prey to them in the past. They are more likely to share the blood of their prey with the bats to whom they are closely related, i.e., genetic altruism is observed in the vampire bats. They often regurgitate blood for the sick 0r the poor mates that could not find the meal. This behaviour of helping the other bats is popularly known as the buddy system.
- Some termites such as ants, Globitermes sulphurous, and Camponotus saundersi also show altruism. Camponotus saunders ruptures its particular specialized gland and releases a sticky secretion, this autothysis protects the entire colony. This means that an individual insect protects the whole colony at expense of its own life, this is purely an act of altruism. The researchers explained this phenomenon in terms of evolutionary benefits, they suggest that the ants perform such acts because are closely related to their colony as they all share the same genes; hence, they tend to promote their genetics at the expense of their life.
- A species of shrimps, Synalpheus regalis shows group-based altruism. Synalpheus regalis is found in the coral reefs sponges; they live in groups consisting of nearly 300 members and one reproductive female. The member of the colonies defend each other and are ready to sacrifice their lives for the safety of their colony.
There are several examples cited by the researchers that show the altruistic behaviour of dolphins. Dolphins are observed saving each other from the fishing nets and the killer sharks. Dolphins not only help their fellow members but also the individuals belonging to different species. For example, there are several incidents where dolphins are observed saving the lives of dogs, and humans that accidentally fall into the water. Dolphins show true altruistic behaviour towards the members belonging to their pod. It is commonly observed that if any dolphin is not in the condition to swim due to injury or sickness, the other dolphins swim under the sick dolphins for long hours and help them to breathe by pushing them to the surface to have oxygen.
11. African Grey Parrots
In a study, the African grey parrots were taught to give the provided token for the food at the exchange window. In this study, the token was provided to only a few grey parrots in the group. The researcher found that some of the parrots gave their tokens to the ones that were not provided with the token.
A particular species of fish, Harpagifer Bispinis, is found in the Antarctic Penisula. These fishes live in groups and show altruism to protect each other. For example, if no parents are present around the nest to protect their eggs, then a male replacement of the group which may or may not be closely related to the parents, comes to the rescue of the eggs. This male replacement protects the eggs from predators and prevents the growth of the fungal in the nest. The male does not have any personal benefits in doing this act, hence it is considered an act of altruism.
Birds are often seen feasting, and protecting the babies of the other birds from the predators in the absence of their parents.
It is observed that the Mongoose helps their relatives to raise their offspring. They protect them from predators when their parents are not around them. They also help the elder or the injured mangoes. Also, it is seen that when the Meerkats (small mongooses) are busy feeding, one of the mongooses from the group of feasting mongooses often guards and warns the other mongooses in case of attacks by the predators.
Cellular slime moulds are also observed showing altruism. For example, Dictyostelium mucoroides live as single amoeba until starvation, they aggregate and construct a multicellular fruiting body having dormant spores. Some of the cells of this body sacrifice themselves to ensure the growth of the other cells in the multicellular fruiting body.
Wolves and wild dogs share their food with others even when there is no kinship. In fact, it is seen that they bring food to the other members of the group if they were not present at the time of the hunt.
Altruism is commonly observed in lions. It is seen that the males protect not only their cubs but also the cubs of their close relatives, and the females feed and nurse all the cubs belonging to their group.
Lemurs feed and nurse unrelated infants. They do not care whether the infant is a kin member or a non-kin member.
19. African Buffalo
The following video shows the altruistic act of the African buffalo. In this video, the African buffalos came to the rescue of one of the members of the group when it was captured by the group of lions. This incident is popularly known as the Battle at Kruger.
It is observed that when a member of the Przewalski’s horses is threatened by the predators, then the fellow members come to its rescue. Some theorists suggest that they show this behaviour to strengthen the unity of the group and to avoid any disruptions.
It is seen that Walruses adopt the orphans whose parents have been killed by the predators.
Dogs are considered the most loyal pet. They show extremely kind behaviour towards their owner and never hesitate to give up their life for the sake of their owner. There are various examples where the dogs stop eating or playing for a number of days, after the death of their owner as they are deeply connected to their owners. In an incident in February 2009, a dog was observed helping an injured dog that was hit by a car on the highway. He dragged the injured dog from the main highway to the side of the road.
Do Animals Show Altruistic Behaviour in Reality?
We have read several examples of altruism in animals, but some people often question the concept of altruism in animals. These people argue that even though animals help the other members that may or may not belong to their species, there could be some hidden benefit of them behind their actions of help. Let’s understand it through an example. A professor at the University of Vermont and researcher Bernd Heinrich saw a group of ravens eating a dead moose. He saw a strange behaviour of ravens, the ravens were not just feasting, but they were also making loud calls that seemed to inform the other ravens about the area of feasting. In fact, some ravens even went back to their roosts to invite other ravens. This behaviour of the raven puzzled Heinrich because according to the ecological theory, the food is not shared but rather defended from the other animals. But, the raven’s behaviour was the exact opposite, they were inviting their fellow relatives for feasting. This behaviour of ravens is considered an example of altruism. This incident inspired Heinrich to conduct several types of research on the behaviour of ravens, and he published it in his book ‘Ravens in Winter.’ It was found out that like most other examples of altruism in animals, there was a selfish benefit for the ravens behind their act of inviting other ravens for feasting. The ravens who were calling the other ravens were found to be juvenile, they found the dead moose in the territory of other birds, hence by inviting the adult ravens they were protecting themselves from being chased off by the birds of that territory. Heinrich then quoted that
True altruism.. paying a cost to help another individual and never ever receiving any kind of benefits, is not very common,’
The psychologist Nigel Barber mentioned in her book ‘Kindness in a Cruel World’ that whenever an animal helps the other, there is always a hidden benefit of the helper and probably the only act of altruism is shown by the parent animals for their offspring although there is still a benefit in terms of evolutionary sense as the parents may be sacrificing their lives for their young ones but they are ensuring the growth of their genes.
They are acting in the interest of their genes, if not their own lives’ – Nigel Barber
This can helps in understanding the altruistic behaviour of worker bees also. Worker bees spent their time nursing and feeding the babies of the queen of the hive rather than trying to reproduce her own offspring. This behaviour of the worker bees confused Charles Darwin, and he remain stuck in his natural selection theory for nearly 20 years. The bee phenomenon was later explained in the 1960s by the biologist William Hamilton, like Nigel Barber he also suggested that the workers bees took care of the babies of the hive’s queen to ensure the survival of their genes because they are closely related to them. In the same manner, most of the examples of animal altruism can be explained through this approach. However, one can not deny that animals do show altruistic behaviour as we have already read in this article about several examples where animals go out of their way and even risks their lives to help or protect others. Even though the there action might be for the betterment of their colony or community, if they are risking their lives for the wellness of their species, it is indeed an act of altruism.