Voles console mates in distress, express empathy

January 25, 2016, 2:03 p.m.

Prairie voles are a species that mate for life, and there seems to be more than just the convenience of monogamy going on in their relationships. Researcher Larry Young of Emory University studies the species and, along with fellow researchers, has conducted tests that seem to indicate that the rodents express empathy for their mates.

The Atlantic reports, "Two prairie voles, life-long mates, sit in separate cages. One hears a distinctive tone, and receives a small electric shock. When the voles are reunited, the second vole quickly starts licking and grooming its stressed mate, continuing for around 10 minutes. It looks a lot like what we’d call consolation."

Young chalks it up to empathy, particularly as the mate of the prairie vole that was given a small shock will go to lengths to comfort their partner, but won't do the same for a stranger. In other words, they extend TLC purposefully to particular individuals with whom they are familiar. Young states that the prairie voles are experiencing an "emotional empathy" or a gut feeling that they are perhaps not aware of, but express nonetheless. This is different from but related to cognitive empathy, something we humans do, where we try to understand the world from another's point of view.

Many researchers aren't as quick to come to the same conclusion, but some researchers (and quite a few animal advocates) think empathy, to some degree, is present in more species that we think. Young and fellow researchers on the study of the prairie voles write, "consolation may be more common than assumed in animals, and prairie voles may prove a useful model for understanding the physical and neural mechanisms underlying consolation behavior."

(Note: The featured photo is of two common voles, a related species similar in appearance to the prairie vole.)

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.