Thousands of wolves have been painted as cold-hearted villains and killed since federal protection was removed from them, but a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE this week has shed new light on them and offered us a glimpse of wolves as emotionally complex animals with the capacity to feel empathy.
We know that if people yawn, someone nearby will follow. This behavior has been believed to have something to do with our capacity to feel empathy. However, it’s also been observed in other non-human primates including chimpanzees, bonobos and baboons.
Studies have also found that dogs catch yawns, but they only react to us – not other dogs – and are more likely to yawn if they have a bond with the person who yawned.
Teresa Romero, a behavioral and cognitive scientist, and her colleagues at the University of Tokyo questioned whether dogs were the only non-primate species to yawn contagiously and whether this ability was innate, or whether it was a result of their domestication and the relationships we’ve built with them over the years, so they set out to study their closest relatives: wolves.
For their study, they logged hundreds of hours observing 12 wolves at the Tama Zoological Park in Tokyo over a period of five months while they “were awake, in a relaxed situation, either sitting down or roaming, and without visible signs of stress.”
They found that wolves are in fact contagious yawners, making this the first study to observe contagious yawning among carnivores.
They also found that wolves with closer bonds caught each other’s yawns more frequently and that female wolves were especially sensitive and reacted faster. Although they noted that they were only looking at a small sample size, they suggested that female wolves are more sensitive to social stimulus.
“These results suggest that contagious yawning is a common ancestral trait shared by other mammals and that such ability reveals an emotional connection between individuals,” Romero said in a statement.
They further concluded that their results “may provide initial evidence that contagious yawning may relate to the wolves’ capacity for empathy, and suggests that basic building blocks of empathy might be present in a wider range of species than previously thought.”
Hopefully, our growing understanding of wolves as incredibly social animals who have strong bonds with each other will help steer the public’s perception of them away from old myths and stereotypes that portray them as ruthless predators that need to be eradicated and instead help us value them as an inherently amazing species that is an integral part of healthy ecosystems, and thus, deserving of protection.
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