Altruism in Animals
Altruism is the conscious and deliberate giving of something you may need yourself but are prepared to donate for another’s wellbeing. Very few humans are altruistic. I see people who give their old clothes to their own servants, or less fortunate relatives, and they think they are being very generous. People who celebrate their birthdays by calling a few poor children to share their goodies – that is not altruism. Nor is giving things to your children that once belonged to you – that is genetic self interest.
Altruism exists only when the donor expects nothing from the recipient and is not related. Animals do it much more gracefully than humans.
Vampire bats drink the blood of mammals, usually cattle, horses, deer. These small creatures, less than 4 inches long and 40 gms in weight, live in the jungles of South America. They hunt at night and are adept at crawling on a body till they find a suitable blood vessel which they puncture softly and lap up the trickling blood.
Upto 2,000 animals live in the same roosting area. If a vampire bat does not find a mammal it goes without a meal for one night. But it takes three days for a bat to starve to death and a weakened creature cannot even fly to find a host. And so, every now and then, a bat that has failed to find blood will beg a meal from a stranger in the roost. The donor will, without question, regurgitate blood and share the meal.
A well documented case is that of a group of sperm whales off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal, who took a handicapped adult bottlenose dolphin into their group. The dolphin travelled, foraged, and played with the adult whales and their calves. When it rubbed its body against the whales, they would sometimes even return the gesture. There was no benefit to the whales of forming this bond with the handicapped dolphin.
Dolphins are known for their compassion. In 2008, one bottlenose dolphin came to the rescue of two beached whales in New Zealand and led them into safe waters. Without the dolphin’s guidance, the whales would have died. In another incident in New Zealand, a group of human swimmers were surprised when dolphins began circling around them, splashing in the water. The swimmers initially thought the dolphins were displaying aggressive behaviour, but it turned out that they were warding off sharks.
Classic examples of altruists are ravens. If one, or a few, come across food, they make loud calls to attract even more ravens. Most ecological theory stipulates that a food bonanza should be defended, not shared. But these birds do share — to the point that some of the ravens even returned to their roost to bring in more birds.
Social insects live together and allow an individual to flourish by helping every other insect in the community. But that is not pure altruism. I would count it business as usual, or programming for survival. Bees protecting a swarm by stinging and, in the process, dying horribly as the stinger pulls out the entire abdomen, or certain species of termites releasing a sticky secretion by rupturing their own glands to protect the nest against invaders, is also programmed behaviour. In ants, wasps, bees and termites, sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. That’s not altruism. That’s just doing their jobs.
For instance, meerkats have one standing guard to warn the community while the rest feed in case of predator attack. Into that category I would even put examples of extreme sacrifice. For instance, the mother spider Stegodyphus, who allows her infants to eat her, or a male spider allowing a female fertilized by him to eat him.
I would not even put trading in kindnesses as altruism. For instance, a monkey will get its insects pulled out by a member of the pack and then, in return will do the same. Or a female wolf that offers to stay behind with the cubs while the rest of the pack goes hunting. Altruism would be those single wolves who bring back meat for those too sick or nursing to go on the hunt.
Altruism is the following: Mongooses and bonobos who support sick, handicapped or elderly animals. Chimpanzees who help other chimpanzees and even humans without expecting anything in return. Dolphins who support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe.
Walruses adopt orphans. African Buffalo often turn around in their flight from predators in order to rescue a member of the herd who has been surrounded. Male and female lemurs take care of infants unrelated to them. Vervet monkeys send out alarms to warn other moneys of predators, even if it means putting themselves in danger, by attracting attention. In many bird species, the parents receive help from unrelated “helper” birds in feeding their babies. Harpagifer bispinis fish live in the Antarctic peninsula. If the parent guarding the nest of eggs is removed, an unrelated male will guard the nest from predators and prevent fungal growth that would kill off the brood.
A unique example of altruism is found in the Dictyostelium mucoroides slime mould. These live as individuals until food is so short that they start starving. Then they get together and form a body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells.
Elephants go out of their way to assist others in need. Like saving a calf from drowning and spraying water on an injured member of the herd to keep it cool.
A study in the journal Marine Mammal Science described the altruism of humpback whales, giving examples of how the giant creatures help seals and other creatures being attacked by killer whales. The researchers concluded that while it made sense for humpbacks to defend their own calves, they had nothing to gain by meddling in attacks on other species. Interspecific altruism," the scientists wrote, "could not be ruled out."
Have you seen the You Tube video of a rhesus macaque successfully resuscitating another of its species which had been electrocuted at a train station? The persistence and concern was amazing and entirely selfless.
Rats are the most altruistic of species. They go out of their way to help others in distress. They will share food with strangers, They will refuse in scientific experiments to inflict pain on each other even if it means dying themselves. When given the choice of escaping or staying to help a strange rat in distress, they almost always choose the latter. Their decisions are always kind. How sad that we use these creatures to experiment on, killing over a billion a year.
All societies, whether human or bat, depend on deliberate and reciprocal kindnesses. Violence spreads and nations shatter when we forget that.
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