Do animals fall in love?

If love is life’s greatest mystery, then perhaps its second greatest mystery is whether only humans experience it. We’re talking lovebirds and puppy love, but biologists are cautioned against anthropomorphizing their animal subjects and assigning human traits and meaning where they don’t belong. Instead, scientists scan the brain, measure hormone production, and conduct “speed dating for pandas,” all of which could help answer the question, “Do animals fall in love? »And if so, how and why?

Define love

Understanding love in animals requires a solid foundation on how scientists define and measure love in humans. “There are different theories on how to slice the cake for this thing we call love,” says Bianca Acevedo, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “A widely accepted perspective is that you can break it down in terms of passionate / romantic love, then companion love” – how we feel about a sibling, child, parent, or partner. a friend. Romantic love, on the other hand, “is the intense desire for union with another specific person. And not just the physical union, but the emotional union, the cognitive union, ”she explains.

The animal kingdom is full of examples of close ties. Our pets seems to like us. The elephants seem mourn their dead. These examples make the case that animals have emotional attachments, much like companion love in humans. But there are also examples that sound like romantic love. For example, albatrosses come back with the same partner all their life, sometimes over 60 years old. “All year round they fly over the oceans, then once a year they come to an island and see and greet each other, and there are rituals [that] really looks like love, ”says Claudia Vinke, animal behavior biologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “If you see these rituals, then you have to say, ‘There must be more than just an attachment bond. “

Monogamy has been observed in all kinds of animals, from birds to beetles. (Some species are sexually monogamous, never mating with another individual besides their partner, while others are socially monogamous, meaning they can have fun alongside each other, but in terms of their behavior. attachment, they only have one turn or die.) There is no perfect model of which species will be monogamous and which will not, but this is generally related to how these species are reproduce. For example, if an animal’s babies need a lot of care, it is beneficial for both parents to help – think of helpless chicks that need to be fed around the clock, which the male parent and female can provide. The benefits of co-parenting may have led these species to develop monogamous mating systems.

In other cases, the path to monogamy is a little more complicated.

“The typical mammalian system is that one male will mate with several females,” says Alexander Ophir, behavioral neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Cornell University. But some female mammals, like big cats, can have multiple fathers for the same litter of cubs. “The answer to that from a male point of view is, ‘OK, well, I’m going to stay with this woman and keep all the other guys away,’” he says. At this point, the males might as well help take care of the offspring and choose a mate they “don’t hate being” with. Here is, a potential evolutionary pathway for the love of mammals.

Ophir notes that this behavior of “falling in love” is quite rare in mammals: “We humans are one of those bizarre mammals who have this experience. We are socially monogamous depending on your culture.

Measuring love

The intangibility of love makes it difficult to study in humans, and even less in animals. At least with people, psychologists can give their subjects a questionnaire assessing the intensity of their feelings. But in addition to self-reported attachment, researchers like Acevedo can analyze brain activity associated with love. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can measure blood flow in the brain when people look at photos of their partner or think about experiences they have had with them. Thinking of their partner, there is a flurry of activity in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, as well as in areas associated with memory and intense concentration.

There are also chemical signs of love, such as increased production of certain hormones. Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone,” but that’s not entirely accurate, according to Ophir. “Things like oxytocin and vasopressin work to modulate a lot of the reward circuits, the things that make you feel good,” he explains. When something “good” happens to you, like finding $ 5 on the street, eating sugar, or having sex, your brain rewards that behavior by making you feel good too. This chemical incentive can condition our behavior. We hypothesize that this conditioning leads us to conclude that “not only does it feel good to mate, but it feels good to mate specifically with this individual,” Ophir explains. “It’s a very sterile way of looking at love, but it could be an underlying part of it.”

Scientists are observing similar physiological reactions in animals, but we cannot be sure that they correlate with romantic feelings. But, Vinke notes, the same goes for our ability to prove the depth of emotion felt by our fellow human beings: “I can ask you, but I cannot prove whether we feel the same.”

Why is this important

While it’s sweet to think of animals that fall in love (just ask the authors of the best-selling children’s book And the tango makes three, the true story of two male penguin mates who raised a chick together), learning how animals attach to their mates can be of critical importance to scientists working to conserve endangered species.

When creating breeding programs for endangered animals, scientists “have to figure out how to make them fall in love, and it’s not as easy as going after Marvin Gaye,” says Meghan Martin , Assistant Professor of Biology at Washington State University-Vancouver and Director. of the nonprofit PDX Wildlife. “We have to break their specific code.”

Martin’s work focuses on the reproduction of the giant panda; she describes her research as “speed dating for pandas”. In the experimental setup, Martin and his team create a “lovers path” where a female panda walks through a hallway of potential mates. Scientists record positive and negative behaviors, and these behaviors can indicate which pandas are selected to mate.

“The general assumption is that if we gave them the chance to mate with the last panda on Earth, which is theoretically what happens, all animals would,” says Martin. “But that’s not the case. I’ve seen species almost disappear in the world of conservation breeding,” as researchers tried to match indifferent animals.

Taking into consideration the choice of mate and attachment is increasingly important “because animals are becoming more and more threatened and we have to make these populations insurance,” explains Martin. “Love isn’t that easy for us, so we can’t count on it being that easy for animals.”

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