Project


Lasst mich raus! Proximate Faktoren, die helfendes Verhalten bei Schweinen vermitteln

Contact: Dr. Liza Rose Moscovice

Duration: 2023-2026

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Abstract:
Prosocial behaviors, defined as actions that benefit others, are widespread in humans and are mediated by genetic, cognitive and neuroendocrine adaptations that promote concern for the welfare of others. Prosocial behavior also occurs in animals, but little is known about the underlying mechanisms and to which extent animals and humans may share some of the same adaptations promoting prosociality. Helping behaviors, when an individual assists another to reach an otherwise unachievable goal, are especially interesting because they have been linked to empathy in humans. Farm animals are highly social animals for which sensitivity to the emotional states of others has welfare implications. Pigs in particular are a promising species for studying the mechanisms mediating prosocial behavior, given that they share similarities in physiology and neuroanatomy with humans. Pigs show evidence of emotional contagion, by altering their own behavioral, physiological and/or cognitive responses because of the emotional expressions of others, and a spontaneous case of rescue behavior in wild boars suggests that pigs are also capable of helping each other. The goals of our project are to identify the proximate factors that mediate spontaneous helping behavior in groups of pigs. To this end, we developed a helping paradigm in which pigs spontaneously learn to open a door in a helping context, in which they release a partner trapped in a compartment, or in a non-helping context, in which they open a door to an identical, empty compartment. The paradigm does not require training or material rewards. Furthermore, we test pigs in social groups in their home environment, which gives animals the choice about whether, when and whom to help. In the first part of the project, we will use this approach to evaluate the role of individual phenotypes and experience, distress level and social solicitation from the trapped pig, social relationships, and the role of social contact in influencing helping behavior. In the second part of the project, we will use non-invasive methods to measure physiological changes in potential helpers while making real-time decisions to give or withhold help to partners. Within helping and non-helping contexts, we will measure changes in salivary cortisol as an indicator of arousal, heart rate variability as a measure of social engagement and changes in salivary oxytocin as an indicator of prosocial motivation. By measuring behavioral and physiological responses of pigs in need of help, and of pigs who choose to help, and considering the influence of individual, contextual and relational factors, our paradigm will provide new insights into the proximate factors mediating spontaneous helping behavior in a novel animal model. Our project also has animal welfare implications by clarifying how prosocial behavior may influence the spread of positive or negative social behaviours within animal groups.
Keywords: Prosociality, empathy, altruism, helping, Sus scrofa domesticus, social relationship, distress, cortisol, oxytocin, heart rate variability.