The Science Behind Animal Friendships

A goat and a rhinoceros. A giraffe and an ostrich. A deer and a rabbit. A fox and a hound. A lion, a tiger, and a bear. These are just some of the many animal friendships we’ve seen lately where two animals who shouldn’t get along unexpectedly do. It’s adorable! It’s heart-warming! What the heck is going on?? The New York Times article “Learning from Animal Friendships” tried to explain these relationships and it was great food for thought, but we wanted to know more. Why do these friendships happen? Do some animals form these bonds better than others? Why do people care so much about them? We had so many questions.

Then we remembered: we have a neurobiologist with a behavioral science focus on staff! He knows about this stuff! Let’s ask him!

So we did.

Here’s a Q&A about the science behind these unexpected and heart-warming animal friendships with our very own behavioral specialist, Dr. Vijal Parikh:

Bubbles the African Elephant and Bella the Black Labrador. CREDIT: Barry Bland

Why do animals form relationships outside of their own species? Do they just want more friends?  

Dr. Vijal Parikh:  Animals have lots of different relationships outside their own species. For the most part, those relationships aren’t friendships, per se; they’re more symbiotic, in that both parties are interdependent and stand to benefit from the relationship mutually.  Animals can even be “more than friends” because what they’re really doing -- what any type of society does (animal, human, viral, etc) -- is participate in Selfish Gene Theory. Everything any organism does is to achieve the goal of better survival, and while a particular gene or species may not individually become better the relationship between two organisms helps increase the survival of both and perpetuate their offspring -- so, collectively, relationship helps. Sometimes animals do things that may not look beneficial (like this elephant hanging out with this labrador), but when you look at the picture as a whole, it does benefit the animals in the long term. 

Candy the Jack Russell Terrier and Mani the Wild Boar Piglet. CREDIT: Spiegel.de

Are young animals better at making friendships than older ones?

DVP: Yes. Based on what we’ve learned about how babies’ brains form and develop over the first few years of life, we’ve seen that younger brain are more plastic in their abilities to form relationships. Especially if those relationships are formed in ways that are similar to mother and child, father and child, and sibling and sibling: those relationships are core to early development, and any early relationships that mimic those connections are stronger and more prone to develop. Animals’ brains seem to work in the same way.

Leo the African Lion, Baloo the American Black Bear, and Shere Khan the Bengal Tiger CREDIT Barcroft Media

Can we tell when animals are making friends, as opposed to toying with potential food?

DVP: Unfortunately, no. Most of the studies we have on friendship have to be subjective in order to preserve the results, and it’s impossible to determine subjectivity unless we interview the study’s subjects. Animals aren’t really subjective or chatty, so we’re kind of stuck on that front (unless they learn to talk!). But... we could potentially do an MRI study where we see what part of an animal’s brain lights up as they relate to a friend: in humans, we have the limbic system and prefrontal cortex that are linked to emotions. Those systems light up in us when we relate to others and form emotional bonds. In animals, if the same areas light up, it would give us a good clue that emotional bonds were happening for them, too… but, again, animals are really tricky to test. They can’t sit still for MRIs, and we don’t have enough funding to run those kinds of tests. Much less make them sit still. That is all kinds of silly.

Mabel the Bantam Chicken and Rottweiler Puppies. CREDIT: Anita Maric

So many of these pairings involve dogs. Are some animals, like dogs, better able to form these relationships than others? If so, why?

DVP: There are a lot of dog pairings out there, and I don’t find it surprising at all. Dogs are awesome! Also, I think it’s because dogs have been domesticated and bred by humans to be more docile. That also applies to horses, sheep, cats, and any other domesticated animal -- including that chicken. Animals that we’ve domesticated are more open to relationships because we’ve conditioned them to being in relationship with us, as Professor Clive Wynne touched on in the article.

Torque the Greyhound and Shrek the Screech Owl. CREDIT: Solent News and Photos

Why do humans care so much about these unusual animal friendships? What are we getting out of seeing them?

DVP: Because they’re adorable -- everybody loves adorable! But truthfully, as a species humans care about emotions. We have the cognitive abilities to. That ability has enabled us to survive, and it’s why we care so deeply about friendships. It’s how we’re wired… and seeing it in animals gives us hope that we can learn more about how to deepen those relationships and make them -- and each other -- better.

Tinni the German Shepherd Mix and SNIFFER the Wild RED Fox. CREDIT: Torgeir Berge

There were lots of other fun things Dr. Parikh had to say, but we’ll leave you with his final thought: Animals live in a very complex ecosystem. Species interact with other species because they’re in a bigger ecosystem. They’re all trying to survive in ways that work best, and it’s an ongoing process. We’re still learning. Both humans and animals are capable of going beyond the norm and finding benefits and connection rather than differences. Both can find unexpected ways to make each other better in the long run. It’s pro-global living at its best, and it’s pan-species.

Kasi the Cheetah and Mtani the Labrador. CREDIT: Busch Gardens Tampa

And that’s the best message we could hope to pass on this Valentine’s Day. May you have a great, genuine connection with loved ones human and animal... and remember: na2ure loves you.