Are Dogs Empathetic? It Depends on the Individual Dog

iStock
iStock

You may be confident that your dog would save you from a burning building, but until recently, there wasn't much science to back you up. A new study reported by The New York Times takes a deeper look at the canine capacity for empathy. "Timmy’s in the Well: Empathy and Prosocial Helping in Dogs," published in the journal Learning & Behavior, suggests that the compulsion to help a human in distress may not be universal in dogs, but it is present in some.

For the study, researchers at Macalester College in Minnesota recruited 34 mature dogs. The test subjects varied in size and breed: The one thing they had in common was that they all had human owners. Their humans were shut away in a room with a window and a magnetically sealed door that could easily be opened with a nose or paw. To see what it would take for the dogs to break in, researchers told the owners to either hum, say "help" in a neutral tone, or say "help" while sounding distressed and crying.

The results indicate that not every dog has what it takes to be a hero. Only half of the dogs opened the door to reach their humans, and they were no more likely to act when their owners called for help than when they hummed a song.

But that doesn't necessarily mean your dog wouldn't feel empathy if it saw you in danger. When dogs did open the door, they reacted more quickly to the distressed sounds than the happy ones. And many of the dogs that stayed put still exhibited signs of stress when they heard their owners crying. In fact, they were even more anxious than the dogs who sprang into action, suggesting they may have been paralyzed by fear.

This reflects what other researchers have observed in humans: The people who acutely relate to the pain of someone in peril can be less likely to help them.

The study authors write:

"Based on this result, it appears that adopting another’s emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door. One must both adopt that emotional state then suppress their own distress, as openers in the distress condition in contrast to non-openers seem to have done, before they are capable of providing help."

But if your dog doesn't come to your rescue right away the next time you cry out, don't automatically assume it's too overwhelmed with empathy to act. There were also dogs in the study that didn't show any stress at all or make any effort to open the door when faced with their crying owner.

[h/t The New York Times]

5 Times the Jig Was Up Because the Parrot Squawked

iStock
iStock

Most of our feathered friends can sing, but only a few can talk. And if those talkers witness something naughty, they might just tell on you.

1. SUSPICIOUS SWEET TALKING

A woman in Kuwait, where adultery is illegal, had been suspicious for some time that her husband was carrying on an affair with their housekeeper. There were little signs, like when she returned home from work early and noticed that he seemed nervous. But it was when the family parrot squawked unfamiliar sweet nothings that she decided to take her suspicions to the police. If her husband wasn’t saying those things to her, how was the parrot learning them? However, because it could not be proven that the parrot hadn’t heard the phrases from a steamy TV show, the bird's evidence was deemed inadmissible.

2. THAT'S NOT MY NAME

In another case of infidelity revealed with a squawk, a man was surprised to hear his beloved African Grey parrot Ziggy say, “Hiya Gary!” when his live-in girlfriend’s phone rang, because his name was not Gary. After he heard the parrot say, “I love you, Gary,” and make kissing sounds when the name Gary was said on TV, he confronted his girlfriend, who admitted she was having an affair with Gary. Not only did he lose his girlfriend, but when the parrot continued to chatter on about Gary in her voice, the man was forced to give his pet up too.

3. THE AWFUL LAST LAUGH

Even when other evidence is already damning, a parrot can add an extra sinister twist to a crime investigation. When an elderly woman was found in a filthy South Carolina home, covered in bedsores and near death, her daughter was charged with elder abuse and neglect (her mother died the next day). The police noted that a parrot in the house repeatedly cried for help and then laughed. They believe it was mimicking the interaction between the mother and daughter: The mother pleading for help and the daughter laughing.

4. REPLAYING THE LAST WORDS

After a Michigan man was found shot to death in his home, his parrot kept repeating a dialogue, alternating between a man and woman’s voice, that went: “Get out.” “Where will I go?” “Don’t f***ing shoot!” His wife—who police believe tried to kill herself but did not succeed—was charged with his murder and was convicted in 2017.

5. GIVING THE CRIMINAL AWAY

Tales of parrots giving the criminal away go back to the 19th century, when the leader of a Paris crime syndicate who went by Victor Chevalier escaped with his beloved parrot from the residence he shared with his wife Marie before the cops descended on him. When an officer was called to another residence for a seemingly unrelated search, he heard as he walked in, a parrot cry out “Totor! Riri!” which happened to be the pet names of Victor and Marie. The discovery of the parrot eventually led to the capture of Victor.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

Scientists Reveal the Most Comprehensive Map of Butterfly Evolution Ever—and It's Gorgeous

Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

There are 18,000 known butterfly species in the world, so maybe it’s not surprising that scientists haven’t quite worked out how they’re all related. Recently, scientists developed what is currently the most comprehensive roadmap of butterfly evolution ever, one that includes 35 times more genetic data and three times as many classifications as past butterfly evolutionary trees. Oh, and as Fast Company found, it’s beautiful.

The study, published in Current Biology, drew on genetic data from 207 butterfly species that together represent 98 percent of butterfly tribes (the classification just above genus). Led by Florida Museum of Natural History curator Akito Kawahara and Marianne Espeland of the Alexander Koenig Research Museum in Germany, the study used this genetic data and the fossil record to trace the evolution of different butterfly species and figure out when different species split off from their cousins.

A circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

Needless to say, millions years of evolution means a lot of information to visualize in one family tree. Each bold label on the very outside of the circle represents a tribe, like Tagiadini, followed by the individual species that made it into the study, like Tagiades flesus (the clouded skipper). Species are clumped together by subgroup—in this case, Pyrginae (spread-winged skippers)—and color-coordinated by family—in this case, Hesperiidae (skippers).

The solid gray circle near the center, labeled K-PG boundary (for Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary) represents the mass extinction event that killed off most of Earth’s plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.

A close-up of a circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

The study confirms several pieces of information that butterfly experts had hypothesized about in previous studies, while overturning other hypotheses. Butterflies can be divided into seven different families, and though previous research estimated that the first butterflies appeared around 100 million years ago, this study pushes that date back to around 120 million years ago. But there were just a few early ancestors of butterflies prior to the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, after which the butterfly family tree explodes into different branches.

Swallowtail butterflies (the subfamily Papilioninae, to the left in blue) were the first butterfly family to branch off, so they’re a “sister” species to all other butterfly species. Skippers (the family Hesperiidae, in purple) likely branched off next, then nocturnal butterflies like the Hedylidae family (in gray). However, some species that scientists previously thought were sister groups do not, in fact, share common ancestry, including swallowtails, birdwings, zebra swallowtails, and swordtails. The timeline shows that some butterfly species seem to have evolved together along with the plants they feed on or, in some cases, ant species with which they now have a mutually beneficial relationship.

[h/t Fast Company]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios