Is Animal Altruism Real?

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 5, 2013 23

In the wild, it’s been documented that at least one leopard “adopted” a baby baboon. ©Eric Rock

Recently, when a group of sperm whales about a thousand miles off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal, took in an adult bottlenose dolphin, behavioral ecologists were puzzled. While cross-species interactions are not uncommon among terrestrial animals, sperm whales are not known for forging nurturing bonds with other species. Such an alliance had never been witnessed before.

For eight days, the dolphin traveled, foraged and played with the adult whales and their calves. When it rubbed its body against the whales, they would sometimes even return the gesture. What makes this story even more fascinating is that the dolphin had an S-shaped, spinal deformity.

Apparently, there was no benefit to the whales of forming this bond with the handicapped dolphin. Could this be evidence that animal altruism is real? 

A bottlenose dolphin in New Zealand once rescued two beached whales, leading them into deeper waters.

Empathy for others

Some wildlife researchers believe that altruism—defined as an act in which an animal sacrifices its own well-being for the benefit of another animal—is a well-documented behavior. Those who say animal altruism exists cite examples such as dolphins helping others in need or a leopard caring for a baby baboon.

In fact, in 2008, a bottlenose dolphin came to the rescue of two beached whales in New Zealand and led them into safe waters. Without the dolphin’s guidance, the whales surely would have died. In another incident in New Zealand, a group of swimmers were first surprised when dolphins began circling around them, tighter and tighter, splashing in the water. The swimmers initially thought the dolphins were displaying aggressive behavior, but it turned out that they were warding off sharks.

In the recent case of the dolphin and the sperm whales off Portugal, ecologists speculate that the dolphin’s peculiar spinal shape may have caused it to be unable to keep up with its own group of dolphins or perhaps it was picked on by other group members. That could have made the animal more likely to initiate an interaction with the large and slower-moving whales.

But what’s even more intriguing to ask is why the whales accepted the lone dolphin. One theory is that the dolphin may have been regarded as nonthreatening and that it was taken in by default because of the way adult sperm whales “babysit” their calves. The whales alternate their dives, always leaving one adult near the surface to watch the juveniles. The presence of the calves, which cannot dive very deep or for very long, allowed the dolphin to maintain contact. Marine biologist John Francis, vice president for research, conservation and exploration at the National Geographic Society, however, postulated that the whales could just be satisfying a desire for the company of other animals.

Some species of whales have been known to display a desire for the company of other animals—such as humans.

Helpful acts—with selfish benefits

Other researchers point out that representing selflessness as an organizing principle of animal behavior—when in reality, it’s only a small part—is dishonest. Animals are only altruistic when it promotes their survival. It’s quite a stretch, they say, to believe that animals are capable of the complex thinking required to save a life.

For example, a cuckoo bird will lay an egg in the nest of a host bird of another species, usually one with similar-looking eggs to its own. The host bird then looks after the egg as if it were its true offspring. While some say this happens because other birds aren’t able to distinguish cuckoo eggs, others have shown that cuckoos periodically return to nests where they’ve left their eggs to see if all is well. If their young are still there, they will leave the nests alone. If not, cuckoos will destroy the nests and kill any of the host birds’ eggs and chicks that happened to survive. So taking care of a cuckoo’s offspring may just be a way for a host bird to protect what she has left.

Bernd Heinrich, a biology professor at the University of Vermont, was hiking through the Maine woods one day when he happened upon a group of ravens feasting on a dead moose. They were unusually noisy and making a loud call that Heinrich had never heard before—a call that seemed to attract even more ravens to the scene.

Bernd Heinrich’s helpful ravens were once the classic example of animal altruism. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

The behavior stymied Heinrich, because, in his view, ecological theory stipulates that a food bonanza should be defended, not shared. But the birds were sharing—to the point that some of the ravens even returned to their roost to recruit more birds. This odd incident inspired Heinrich to conduct a series of field studies, which he eventually published in the book Ravens in Winter (1989).

Heinrich’s helpful ravens became the classic example of animal altruism, says Jeff Stevens, a psychology professor at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. But like most examples of animal altruism, what seemed to be a selfless act had selfish benefits. The sharing ravens were juveniles that had found the moose carcass in a mature raven’s territory. By bringing other young ravens to the feast, they avoided being chased off by the territory-holding bird.

Stevens believes that for any behavior to survive natural selection, it needs to help an animal or its genetic material. True altruism is not very common because it wouldn’t make much sense biologically.

But try telling that to one special bottlenose dolphin in New Zealand.

Do you think that animals are capable of true altruism? Or are they just naturally doing what’s best for their own species?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Nevin Blumer August 27, 2018 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    I think the definition of altruism is quite clear so I’m not sure why we need to purposely muddy our common notion of it just for the sake of denying its existence. Altruism must relate to behaviour that assists others where no possible perceived benefit could be gained and clearly this has been shown in countless occasions, even though we humans are typically more drawn to observations of mammal savagery, skewing our perceptions about the “wild kingdom”. Clearly these cases cited of altruistic behaviour by animals offer no chance of reciprocity other than perhaps a good feeling about doing it. I don’t know why humans would suppose that they are unique ‘angels’ in the animal kingdom – the only creatures harbouring altruistic dispositions or even consciousness. We are unique in our level of consciousness and our advanced ability to construct mental structures to introspect but it is likely that we are not creators or founders of morality; instead jut the most expressive reflective articulators of it. Likely, there are extraterrestrial creatures in the universe that we have not yet met that have arrived at a deeper consciousness than we have currently. Our level of consciousness is more a product of genetic drift than through natural selection and other creatures will develop it eventually, if we spare the world for them to do so. We may just be “early birds” in our depth of consciousness but altruism, empathy and morality may have always been as true a feature of life as the survival instinct has been

  2. Joshua Devore July 25, 2013 at 2:29 am - Reply

    Altruism exists in mammals and birds mostly. This stems from empathy. The point of empathy is to make the self and another indistinguishable. We feel pleasure at helping others. So yes, one can say altruism is “selfish” although this is missing the point entirely. Semantics are the problem. If doing something for another is just as selfish as helping oneself, language has become obsolete.

    • SMS May 26, 2018 at 11:03 am - Reply

      It’s a pretty weak argument to say an altruism that would risk an organism’s life or even take it can be called ‘Selfish’. If Altruism were to not exist in it’s true form then the world wouldn’t have any animal activists or vegans for example.

  3. C. Morgan McNeil May 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    We humans are vain. There have been numerous sightings by researchers while aboard vessels conducting unrelated research, of whales saving the lives of young seal. Rolling onto her back a whale may draw an imperiled seal pup onto her belly, where the pup rests secure till the predator, in the report I read, a shark, had withdrawn. The pup then slid into the water and made for the icefloes and its mother. Allomaternal care. Key word any animal. I found related behaviour among Ravens. Allomaternal care is common among birds. In mammals, some form of alloparenting has been reported in over 120 species.
    For bats.

  4. Beth Levine February 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    I’ve read another book by Marc Bekoff (The Emotional Lives of Animals) and it was very good. He’s a well-known cognitive ethologist and he’s written several books:

  5. Jude Price February 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    Elephants (Africana loxodonta) will slow to accommodate injured family members, stay with ill or injured members (until forced by thirst/hunger to go). They will cooperate to lift a fallen family member. They will cooperate to rescue in distress youngsters such as this video…
    Great discussion Candice. I first read about this via Marc Beckoff – the part of your article that states “…Animals are only altruistic when it promotes their survival. It’s quite a stretch, they say, to believe that animals are capable of the complex thinking required to save a life.” and later “True altruism is not very common because it wouldn’t make much sense biologically.” Is the hoary old chestnut of anthropomorphism being leveled at anyone who potentially observes a behaviour and interprets it as ‘for the good of the relationship’ rather than for the good of the species..” I reckon if we (a social mammal) have the capacity to act for the good of another individual at our own cost that other long-lived, social sentient animals do too.

  6. Hafiz Yahya February 12, 2013 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Natural phenomena, aninal interactions and behavioural aspects are as diverse amd mysterious as nature itself. There is a saying in Bengali “jatu jann tatu mann”. Meaning the behavioural triats of humans are as diverse as the number of human beings – each is different from others in certain respect. Therefore, may it be altruism, agonastic, parasitic, or other type of behaviour we know some but do no know many that could be known in due course of time. Animals behaving in normal circumstances do often behave differently in altered circumstances. I believe altruism is true and almost universal in human, domesticated and wild animals. We need to observe more intricately to gather more information.
    Hafiz Yahya

  7. Alex Dudley February 12, 2013 at 6:33 am - Reply

    When I was about five, I was a fairly typical little boy with a very strong interest in natural history. I grew up in the bush near Sydney, Australia, and one day was watching ants and ant-lions. Two Green ants Rhytidoponera metallicus were walking past an ant-lion pit, about 3cm apart. I flicked the first one in and without hesitation the second ran straight into the pit, grabbed the first ant (who had been grabbed by the ant-lion) by the jaws and tried o pull it out. I can’t recall whether it was successful but I never flicked another green ant into an ant-lion pit!

  8. Edward Cannella February 11, 2013 at 5:57 am - Reply

    From a personal point of view, the concept of altruism in species other than humans is more of a hangover from the age of romanticism. Animal behaviourists are usually very careful about trying not to anthropomorphise their experimental subjects and the results. Unfortunately, our language, the tool we use to describe results, is found wanting in describing the non-human construct………As you will note from my somewhat abbreviated spiel, the issue of altruism in the non-human world is subjective. I can only base my views of my 25 years as a zoologist with almost half of that time spent in the field observing numerous species of fauna (granted, all of it terrestrial vertebrate fauna), my readings on the subject and the thoughts derived from those sources. BUT as a scientist I await evidence to the contrary (what is life if it is not for learning).

  9. John Burridge February 10, 2013 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    I do not know if this classifies as altruism but in Attleboro, Massachusetts, just a few miles from where I live, a couple has documented the strangest interspecies relationship I have ever heard of. A wild crow in their back yard has raised and become great friends with a stray kitten. They have a film posted on You Tube.

  10. Pam Glasser Covington February 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    This discussion about altruism has been very interesting. It brings to mind the words of an anonymous author. Words I think best describe our relationship with animals. The author states:

    “We need another, wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. Therein we greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete. Gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, they live by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren. They are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the web of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and the travail ahead.”

    From birds who can navigate flawlessly over thousands of miles of open ocean to the sonar of whales, animals have shown extensions of senses we do not have. Dogs who pull injured mates from traffic and elephants who obviously grieve when one of their own dies, show over and over again that animals are not just “instinct” driven.

    Animals really are different from you and I. It’s only man’s hubris that prevents us from fully acknowledging and respecting those differences. I believe until we learn to stop measuring animals by ourselves, we have not earned the right to call ourselves truly civilized.

  11. SMAugustine February 9, 2013 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    I would urge anyone who has not yet read the 1996 NYTimes bestseller WHEN ELEPHANTS WEEP the emotional lives of animals by Dr. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson to do so if you have an interest in animal behavior & emotions. I believe he devotes a whole chapter to documenting the many altruistic acts observed in a broad range of animal species as well as a variety of other emotions (grief, jealousy, anger, joy, boredom, etc). He also makes a strong case for their ability to express appreciation for beauty and even create art. This book (still used in many comparative psychology curriculum) is a masterpiece that is fascinating to read and would convince even the most skeptical human animal that these emotions and abilities are not exclusive to homo sapiens. I would also recommend Sociobiology by the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson.

  12. Bill Leikam February 8, 2013 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I heard the following story. A guy was driving his truck on a back road on his way home one evening. He came upon a young fox laying beside the road. He stopped, went back to see about it and found that it was still alive but it couldn’t stand. He went back to his truck to phone for help and when he looked up in his rear-view mirror, he saw two foxes “carrying” the injured fox back off into the brush. He said that he felt that the injured fox would be just fine and drove away.

    I think we need to keep exploring the answers to that question until the majority of people begin to believe that animals are really no different from you and I. That has huge implications for so many parts of our lives and theirs.

  13. Eileen Antolino February 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    We can’t be held captive to thinking within the box of empirical science where skepticism and special interests cause good forward thinking toward an emergent consciousness to flounder and languish amidst the confusion of logic dependent only on known scientific Socratic fact.

    However, that Pandora’s box is slowly opening wider and wider with new research into animal cognition, animal consciousness, animal awareness, animal intelligence and yes…animal emotion… dispelling Dan’s statement that “humans are the only ones aware of their existence.” For pete’s sake…we just learned that the gene for language has been found in Neanderthal DNA and there have been hundreds of examples of animals deliberately using tools in a premeditated way…proving that Homo sapiens, “Thinking Man,” has no proprietary claim on either language or tools setting him above or apart from any other nonhuman animals! It is even arguable that he is a natural terminal predator!! (I consider him a “cheat” since I share the belief we are primary consumers in our natural state!)

    I know Dan’s next statement is going to be “show me the facts” because he is such an able researcher and debater albeit sympathetic to the brotherhood of wildlife “managers” and “conservationists” who are adamant that wildlife is a natural resource to be managed to the benefit of society and thereby they are detached of sorts from the natural world in a spiritual “conscious” sense. But I implore all who still question, to do the research and answer your questions to your own satisfaction. The empirical “facts” are out there along with the ancient wisdom that has always been known.

    I’d hate to see anyone still stuck in this contemporary conservative yet dominant worldview…and to my understanding…this current structure of human consciousness, the “rational mind” of enlightened thinking, which is actually a “Dark Age” according to William I. Thompson in his “Coming Into Being:Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness”…is a precursor of yet another imminent emerging mutation of human consciousness (see Gebser 1985 “The Ever-Present Origin”, Feuerstein 1987 “Structures of Consciousness”, Roszak 1975 “Unfinished Animal”)…albeit a higher form of animal consciousness since we ourselves are naught but animals!!

    Yet this emergent consciousness breaching its very own birth is yet another evolutionary mutation in the archeology of human awareness. Oh, why am I always so surprised at the depths and obstinacy of Homo hubris!!

  14. Beth Levine February 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    “But like most examples of animal altruism, what seemed to be a selfless act had selfish benefits.”

    wouldn’t this be true for human animals, as well?

  15. Jan Bontje February 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Amazing… Kropotkin already wrote about altruism more than a 100 years ago… Now it seems we have proof he was right…

  16. Catherine Puglisi February 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    The following is from August 16, 1996

    Binti is best known for an incident which occurred on August 16, 1996, when she was eight years old. A three-year old boy climbed the wall around her zoo enclosure and fell 18 feet onto concrete below, rendering him unconscious with a broken hand and a vicious gash on the side of his face.[1]
    Binti walked to the boy’s side while helpless spectators screamed, certain the gorilla would harm the child. Another larger female gorilla approached, and Binti growled.[1]
    Binti consoled the child and kept the other animals at bay, so that zoo personnel could retrieve him.[2] Her 17-month-old baby, Koola, clutched her back throughout the incident. The boy spent four days in the hospital and recovered fully.[3]
    [edit] Aftermath
    After the incident, experts debated whether Binti’s actions were a result of training by the zoo or animal altruism. Because Binti had been hand-raised, as opposed to being raised in the wild by other gorillas, she has had to be specially trained to care for an infant and to take her child to personnel for examinations. One could assume that this training resulted in her behavior when the little boy fell into her enclosure.[citation needed] Primatologist Frans de Waal, however, uses Binti Jua as an example of empathy in animals.[2]

  17. Margherita February 6, 2013 at 8:31 am - Reply

    I believe that true altruism does not exist.
    Animals, humans included, will act solely to benefit themselves and therefore increase the probability of gene propagation. Every altruistic act is either an error or a selfish act that will in some way benefit the actor. It could have immediate benefits or indirect ones, such as putting the actor in a better light and thus raising his/her position in society or his/her circle of friends, for example.
    The dolphin/whale interaction is a very good recent example. Why are they together? Well, maybe for mutual benefits: the dolphin is protected and the whale-babysitter has an extra pair of eyes to check for dangers. Or maybe there is another reason that we can’t yet understand, but the only certain thing is that there will be a reason and the reason will not be selfless.

    • Sarah March 1, 2013 at 5:54 pm - Reply

      Well, I actually believe that animal altruism does exist. Why shouldn’t the fact that animals can actually think for themselves and help other animals for just kindness? Are animals just basically creatures then, that do not have any compassion? I believe animals CAN have compassion for other animals, even if it isn’t their own kind, species, and so forth. They aren’t just creatures that think to just survive and not think about any other animal. I know the mothers care for their young, so they have love. So if they have love for their own young and to mate, then why can’t they have any compassion? They can do whatever they want, and not only for selfish self-benefiting reasons. All of these incidents that prove animal altruism aren’t just weird errors. If you were an animal, would you not show compassion just like when you were human?

  18. John Burton February 6, 2013 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Before discussing, perhaps a detailed definition of altruism is needed.

  19. Dan Zerinskas February 6, 2013 at 6:07 am - Reply

    Good day Candice,

    This was a very interesting article. At the heart of your question, “Is animal altruism real”, is to argue if there is such a concept as “true altruism”. What appears as unselfish behavior or taking on the needs of others above oneself could be for some benefit unknown to the observer. The part of the article titled “Helpful Acts, Selfish Benefits” hits this idea dead on.

    Elephants have been a main focus of behavioral observation to determine if animal altruism is real, and a larger focus to try and determine if mammals have “feelings” or emotions. Not to completely go off grid, but again that all depends on how one interprets behavior and the definition of a word. What is an emotion? One definition is: “A psychological state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is sometimes accompanied by physiological changes.” So when an elephant makes trumpet call when a calf dies, is it crying from depression (feeling) or is it an outside environmental stimulus causing a hormonal change in the hypothalamus thus resulting in a behavior. Or maybe its chemical, the chemoreceptors in the parent elephant are triggered by the “smell” of decease, thus causing other biological changes resulting in a specific behavior. I am not saying this is the case, but just arguing the fact that it is all perception and lack of definition in a word.

    The reason I mention emotions in an discussion on altruism is that I think they go hand in hand. It also means that for animal altruism to exist, that means the animal must have a conscious; and as far as I understand, humans are the only ones aware of their existence. While overly simplistic, just put a mirror in front of an intelligent living thing and watch what happens.

    There are many examples of animals possibly displaying altruistic behavior. Going back to elephants, an adult female will put herself between danger and herd (especially if young present). This could be the female putting the welfare of others above her own, but I think it is a survival strategy for the species to make sure the young mature – especially considering intense amount of energy put into reproduction and low numbers of offspring. A dog that saves a person from a burning house again could be seen as animal altruism, but maybe the dog’s instinct knows that is food and care source. The famous female lion that took care of a baby antelope while she alone was starving (the story was huge on you tube, discovery channel, and Nat Geo). Could be that she was young, inexperienced, was separated from pride, and was substituting it for normal companion (far fetched, and I forget what the professionals theorized the “true” reason).

    Either way, it is an interesting concept and even more interesting debate on theories in why animals behave certain ways.

  20. Eileen M. Antolino February 5, 2013 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Absolutely..compassion began with maternal instinct long before Homo species were a twinkle in Australopithicus’ eye! Man has no more proprietary claim on altruism in the animal world than he does on language and tools, based on the latest scientific research…which comes late of ancient tribal wisdom in the first place!

    One need only visit the myriad of Facebook sites that document animal altruism in daily posts meant to inspire and fulfill the longing and emptiness of humans suffering from their detachment from the natural world.

Leave A Response »