Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Paris. Paris Wonders, “Why do animals save their owners?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Paris!
Do you have any pets at home? Many kids have two of the most popular pets: dogs and cats. Kids who love particular types of animals might branch out and keep fish, birds, guinea pigs, hamsters, hermit crabs, or lizards as pets.
For many kids, their pets become like members of the family. A loyal dog, for example, can seem like one of your siblings, except your dog probably doesn't hog the X-box or make fun of you when your parents aren't around.
For the most part, though, there's a big difference between animals and humans. You don't see animals driving cars, using computers, or building large, complex societies.
On a more basic level, though, you don't usually see animals displaying the kind of empathy that humans can show to each other. In their interactions with other species and often in their interactions with others of the same species, animals tend to act strictly out of self-interest.
That's why humans are amazed when they see examples of animals willingly helping members of other species that find themselves in grave danger. For example, in 2012, researchers in Monterey Bay, California, witnessed a group of humpback whales protect a gray whale from a pod of killer whales (orcas).
Why would these whales forgo opportunities to feed, waste energy, and risk injury to protect another species? Biologists will tell you that adult animals rarely do anything unless there's a benefit to themselves, so they usually examine behavior to determine how it might benefit the animal.
For example, some scientists argue that the humpback whales may have thought it was one of their own that was in trouble. This doesn't explain why they would continue to defend the other species for hours after they realized it wasn't a humpback whale.
Moreover, of the more than 100 instances in which humpback whales have protected animals from orcas, the overwhelming majority of the incidents involved humpback whales protecting seals, sea lions, porpoises, and other marine mammals.
Other scientists note that it's more common for animals to help other members of their same species, especially if they are closely related, live together, or are part of a group. Helping other animals in this way is basically self-preservation, because they identify as part of a group rather than just an individual.
Perhaps humpback whales oppose orcas on a regular basis mainly to help themselves. If another species benefits from their behavior occasionally, so be it.
Others, however, choose to see something else in their behavior: altruism and empathy for other species. These scientists believe that it's not unreasonable to believe that certain highly-intelligent animals could also develop and display empathy to other species.
They cite examples in which other highly-intelligent animals help other species. For example, dolphins have been known to protect and help dogs, whales, and even human beings. There have been multiple reports over the years of dolphins protecting human swimmers from shark attacks.
Scientists also point to man's best friend, the dog, as an example of an animal that has been known to adopt and raise orphans of other species, including cats, chickens, pigs, squirrels, deer, and even a baby tiger. Some scientists believe many of these cases involve an infant animal of another species that mistakenly imprints upon a dog as its parent.
Even if these are cases of mistaken identity, the dogs involved aren't confused about who they are. They still demonstrate incredible protection of and empathy toward these orphans of other species. While more study of these situations is needed, many are willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they're not always as self-interested as we once believed!