Helping behavior in prairie voles: A model of empathy and the importance of oxytocin

iScience. 2022 Feb 26;25(4):103991. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.103991. eCollection 2022 Apr 15.


Several studies suggest that rodents show empathic responses and helping behavior toward others. We examined whether prairie voles would help conspecifics who were soaked in water by opening a door to a safe area. Door-opening latency decreased as task sessions progressed. Female and male voles stayed close to the soaked voles' side at equal rates and opened the door with similar latencies. When the conspecific was not soaked in water, the door-opening latency did not decrease. This suggests that the distress of the conspecific is necessary for learning to open the door and that the door-opening performed by prairie voles corresponds to helping behavior. Additionally, we examined the helping behavior in prairie voles in which oxytocin receptors were genetically knocked out. Oxytocin receptor knockout voles demonstrated less learning of the door-opening behavior and less interest in soaked conspecifics. This suggests that oxytocin is important for the emergence of helping behavior.

Keywords: Evolutionary biology; rodent behavior.