A calf fights to save its mother: altruism in some animals

The image is touching, far from that of Moby Dick. A stranded mother whale had his life saved thanks to his calf who struggled to free it. A first aid behavior which is not new and contributes to altruism in this cetacean.

LThe action was taking place off the coast of Brisbane in Australia, a humpback whale was stranded on a sandbank, and, alerted by its cries of distress, its young deployed its energy for 40 minutes in order to disentangle it. Being able to move around in shallow water, the calf pushed its mother in different directions until she could move. Rescuers from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Dispatched to save the animal arrived after the two cetaceans left, and a spokesperson said:

“The whale and its calf then moved away. The female was still stressed and tired. "


The humpback whale, capable of even interspecies rescue: saving the seals

The rescue carried out by the calf is moving in particular because of the filial link in question and the youth of the animal. Observers had previously been surprised by seemingly altruistic behavior of humpback whales that saved not congeners of their own species or others, but seals. Not only, we have been able to observe a dozen humpback whales protecting the remains of a gray whale in the face of killer whales, but also it is attested that these cetaceans have repeatedly faced killer whales to protect seals. 115 confrontations of this type were reported between 1951 and 2012. This is not a question of mutualism, because the two species do not cooperate so that each finds its interest; the humpback whale simply saves the seal, with no return, and takes risks for its own life.

There are many hypotheses that try to explain this behavior: is it for these animals to try to dissuade the orcas from attacking their offspring, from attacking an enemy who had already injured them? Lori Marino, an American biologist specializing in cetacean intelligence, has an alternative explanation:

“Humpback whales are capable of complex thinking, making decisions, solving problems and communicating,” says Lori Marino, an American biologist specializing in cetacean intelligence. Attributes which testify to a high degree of intelligence and which can lead to altruistic behaviors. "

Otherwise, in 89% of cases, whales attack killer whales only after they attack seals, which could suggest that the motive for revenge is not the main one. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman believes that this is probably altruistic behavior and that, even assuming the intention is to prevent killer whales from attacking calves, this behavior speaks to a complex emotional life, such as that which can be seen in primates.

A neural structure specific to empathy?

In 2006, Patrick Hof, researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School, At New York, revealed the discovery of spindle neurons in two brain regions of certain whales which, in humans, are necessary for the development of emotional reactions, the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontinsular cortex, but also in other areas of the brain; they have three more than the man, considering the difference in size. These brain cells, previously only found in humans and great apes - and now also in the elephant and in some dolphins -, would be involved in the feeling of love, would make it possible to take quick and complex decisions, to judge quickly with his emotions if someone or an animal is suffering or to feel if an event is pleasant or unpleasant, more than in individuals not having one. At least, for the man in whom the deterioration of the cingulate cortical areas is generally associated with a risk of reduced empathic understanding, even apathy. This discovery seems to confirm at the neuronal level what had until then been observed at the level of the behavior of these cetaceans, their potential for high-level brain functions.

There are different ways of caring about others, three of them - empathy, moral good, and altruism - involve many common areas of the brain, explains the June 2015 issue of The research. Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions of another, to do him good or bad; the moral sense allows to desire equity for all regardless of what one thinks of one or the other; and altruism is the capacity to give, even to sacrifice oneself for free. Out of empathy, whales would be able to put themselves in the shoes of seals to behave altruism. However, it is not necessarily about empathy in the human sense.

The animal: more than Descartes' machine

For a long time, René Descartes' thesis reducing animals to machines, pure mechanical assemblies incapable of thinking, has been widely regarded as erroneous. By ethologists, of course, but also by anyone with a minimum interest in animals. However, as much ethologists document their remarks by observations, experiments, analyzes, as much the general public is generally satisfied with impressions, especially starting from anthropomorphic projections.

Thus, after a macaque had saved its unconscious congener, fallen on the rails after a shock due to contact with an electric cable, by throwing it into the water after having apparently shaken it to revive it, two approaches were publicized. The general media talked about the rescue, for example the newspaper Le Parisien as A heroic monkey saves his electrocuted fellow, while scientific journals, even mainstream ones, preferred restraint, for example Science and Future chose to title his article A monkey saves an electrocuted fellow, really? and give the floor to an ethologist. Then, in some non-scientific media, the primatologist Adrien Meguerditchian was able to express his thesis being that the macaque not being aware of death, he could not have tried to save the other primate, but had expressed his dominant position. His analysis has earned him criticism of the spaces dedicated to reader comments or by email:

“Following my intervention, I received a lot of e-mails of protest: for Internet users, I refused to see the empathy shown by this animal. Maybe this monkey is empathizing. But the reality is that this video does not make it possible to affirm it. This is an observation, not an experience, ”he explains in the issue of The research above.

Empathy in some animals: thinking about the other to "heal" it

For Adrien Meguerditchian, most monkeys, unaware of existing, cannot be aware of death. The famous mirror test demonstrated that, in monkeys, only four species have it, macaques not: they do not recognize each other. It should however be specified that this test itself involves an anthropomorphic projection, the recognition of oneself being evaluated according to human criteria, in particular the sight which is not the principal direction in many animals, for example the dog. The gorilla itself was considered devoid of self-awareness because it avoided looking at itself in a mirror whereas today it is generally assumed that it does, following a "passed" test by a. single individual.

If the spontaneous loan of a saving intention to the macaque lacks prudence, the gaps in the knowledge of the animal world prevent to understand all the springs of the behavior of the animals. But the idea of ​​mutual aid seems at least to be acquired, especially in monkeys (for example the fact of supporting a wounded, to pick a fruit for a crippled elder but also the ability to console each other, even rescue an animal of another species), and Chinese zoologists have even observed a case where a female semnopithecus helps a congener to give birth, so normally these monkeys are on their own for that.

 Between capacity for cooperation and altruism

This capacity for cooperation is not the sole prerogative of monkeys or cetaceans, everyone can see around them that mutual aid among animals or between humans and domestic animals exists. It is observed in birds, and for example an experiment suggests that, in the Andean spotted wren, certain nervous circuits found in humans are predisposed to cooperation : the scientists played solos or duets to this bird capable of completing the sentences of its partner and recorded its brain activity in the center of the song, which made it possible to see its neurons activate more when listening of duets. This predisposition to cooperation finds its moral culmination in physical or psychological mutual aid. For example, still in birds, geese can be seen cackling in flight to stimulate those in the front line, and altruism is recognized in this species in which, when one of the members is sick, tired or injured and can no longer fly with the set, congeners come out of the set to accompany him, help him to fly, protect him and stay with him until it is firm or dies.

The capacity for mutual aid is found even between animals of different species and between wild animals and humans, for example in Mozambique where the main indicators, birds from sub-Saharan Africa, show men the location of the hives in exchange for wax that they leave them. It is a question here of mutualism and not of altruism, but it is the capacity and the will to cooperate which are put forward and make it possible to speak of aid and mutual aid.

Less broadly, the primatologist Frans de Waal of the university Emory, in the United States, believes that empathy would be common to all mammals, but would be more or less developed according to the species, some being capable of altruism, for example the dolphin, able to think of the other, "paunch" him in a way and can help an injured companion.

An experience in a Chinese zoo at the end of July 2009 could have turned into a tragedy, but had a happy outcome both in terms of security and knowledge of whales. The park had organized a diving competition in the beluga basin, it was a question of staying at the bottom as long as possible without a breathing mask. A scared terrified diver could no longer ascend, and no one noticed his paralysis. One of the whales grabbed his left leg to bring him to the surface.

Hans-Søren Dag

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