Meerkat Predator-Scanning Behavior Is Altruistic, Research Suggests

Feb. 4, 2013 — In order to spot potential predators, adult meerkats often climb to a higher vantage point or stand on their hind legs. If a predator is detected, they use several different alarm calls to warn the rest of the group. New Cambridge research shows that they are more likely to exhibit this behaviour when there are young pups present, suggesting that the predator-scanning behaviour is for the benefit of the group rather than the individual.

Meerkats are a cooperatively breeding species, with a dominant breeding pair and up to 40 ‘helpers’ of both sexes who do not normally breed but instead assist with a number of cooperative activities such as babysitting and feeding of offspring.

However, scientists have questioned whether sentinel behaviour, when helper meerkats climb to a high point to scan for predators, and other vigilance behaviour, such as standing on their hind legs, is done for their own preservation (with the group’s increased safety being an indirect consequence) or if the primary goal is altruistic, with the main purpose being the protection of the group.

Peter Santema, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said: “You see similar behaviour in a range of mammal and bird species, and we know from previous work that other group members are less likely to be attacked by predators when someone is on guard. Biologists have been debating, however, whether the protection that other group members enjoy is just a side-effect or one of the reasons why individuals perform these guarding behaviours.”

For the research, which was funded by the BBSRC, scientists observed non-breeding helpers in the period just before the dominant female’s pups had joined the group on foraging trips. They repeated the observations immediately after the pups joined the group. When they compared the results, they found that after the pups had joined the group on foraging trips, helpers showed a sudden increase in their vigilance behaviour.

Santema added: “These results are exciting, as they show us that individuals are not just on the look-out for their own safety, but that the protection of other group members is another motivation for these behaviours. Our results thus suggest that vigilance and sentinel behaviour in meerkats represent forms of cooperation.”

The Cambridge research was published today in the journalAnimal Behaviour.


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The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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University of Cambridge (2013, February 4). Meerkat predator-scanning behavior is altruistic, research suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 5, 2013, from

Some Plants Are Altruistic, Too, New Study Suggests

Feb. 1, 2013 — We’ve all heard examples of animal altruism: Dogs caring for orphaned kittens, chimps sharing food or dolphins nudging injured mates to the surface. Now, a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder suggests some plants are altruistic too.


The researchers looked at corn, in which each fertilized seed contained two “siblings” — an embryo and a corresponding bit of tissue known as endosperm that feeds the embryo as the seed grows, said CU-Boulder Professor Pamela Diggle. They compared the growth and behavior of the embryos and endosperm in seeds sharing the same mother and father with the growth and behavior of embryos and endosperm that had genetically different parents.

“The results indicated embryos with the same mother and father as the endosperm in their seed weighed significantly more than embryos with the same mother but a different father,” said Diggle, a faculty member in CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. “We found that endosperm that does not share the same father as the embryo does not hand over as much food — it appears to be acting less cooperatively.”

A paper on the subject was published during the week of Jan. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors on the study included Chi-Chih Wu, a CU-Boulder doctoral student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department and Professor William “Ned” Friedman, a professor at Harvard University who helped conduct research on the project while a faculty member at CU-Boulder.

Diggle said it is fairly clear from previous research that plants can preferentially withhold nutrients from inferior offspring when resources are limited. “Our study is the first to specifically test the idea of cooperation among siblings in plants.”

“One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives,” said Friedman. “Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary. When the endosperm gives all of its food to the embryo and then dies, it doesn’t get more altruistic than that.”

In corn reproduction, male flowers at the top of the plants distribute pollen grains two at a time through individual tubes to tiny cobs on the stalks covered by strands known as silks in a process known as double fertilization. When the two pollen grains come in contact with an individual silk, they produce a seed containing an embryo and endosperm. Each embryo results in just a single kernel of corn, said Diggle.

The team took advantage of an extremely rare phenomenon in plants called “hetero-fertilization,” in which two different fathers sire individual corn kernels, said Diggle, currently a visiting professor at Harvard. The manipulation of corn plant genes that has been going on for millennia — resulting in the production of multicolored “Indian corn” cobs of various colors like red, purple, blue and yellow — helped the researchers in assessing the parentage of the kernels, she said.

Wu, who cultivated the corn and harvested more than 100 ears over a three-year period, removed, mapped and weighed every individual kernel out of each cob from the harvests. While the majority of kernels had an endosperm and embryo of the same color — an indication they shared the same mother and father — some had different colors for each, such as a purple outer kernel with yellow embryo.

Wu was searching for such rare kernels — far less than one in 100 — that had two different fathers as a way to assess cooperation between the embryo and endosperm. “It was very challenging and time-consuming research,” said Friedman. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, or in this case, a kernel in a silo.”

Endosperm — in the form of corn, rice, wheat and other crops — is critical to humans, providing about 70 percent of calories we consume annually worldwide. “The tissue in the seeds of flowering plants is what feeds the world,” said Friedman, who also directs the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. “If flowering plants weren’t here, humans wouldn’t be here.”


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Colorado at Boulder.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. K. Baruch, N. Ron-Harel, H. Gal, A. Deczkowska, E. Shifrut, W. Ndifon, N. Mirlas-Neisberg, M. Cardon, I. Vaknin, L. Cahalon, T. Berkutzki, M. P. Mattson, F. Gomez-Pinilla, N. Friedman, M. Schwartz. CNS-specific immunity at the choroid plexus shifts toward destructive Th2 inflammation in brain agingProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1211270110
University of Colorado at Boulder (2013, February 1). Some plants are altruistic, too, new study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 3, 2013, from

From Dark Hearts Comes the Kindness of Humankind

Jan. 22, 2013 — The kind­ness of humankind most likely devel oped from our more sin is ter and self-serving ten den cies, accord­ing to Prince ton Uni ver sity and Uni ver sity of Ari zona research that sug gests society’s rules against self­ish ness are rooted in the very exploita tion they condemn.


The report in the jour nal Evo lu tionpro poses that altru ism — society’s pro tec tion of resources and the col­lec tive good by pun ish ing “cheaters” — did not develop as a reac tion to avarice. Instead, com mu nal dis­avowal of greed orig i nated when com pet ing self ish indi vid u als sought to con trol and can cel out one another. Over time, the direct efforts of the dom i nant fat cats to con tain a few com peti tors evolved into a community-wide desire to guard its own well-being.

The study authors pro pose that a sys tem of greed dom i nat ing greed was sim ply eas ier for our human ances tors to man age. In this way, the work chal lenges dom i nant the o­ries that self ish and altru is tic social arrange ments formed inde pen dently — instead the two struc tures stand as evo lu tion ary phases of group inter­ac tion, the researchers write.

Sec ond author Andrew Gallup, a for­mer Prince ton post doc toral researcher in ecol ogy and evo lu tion­ary biol ogy now a vis it ing assis tant pro fes sor of psy chol ogy at Bard Col­lege, worked with first author Omar Eldakar, a for mer Ari zona post doc­toral fel low now a vis it ing assis tant pro fes sor of biol ogy at Ober lin Col­lege, and William Driscoll, an ecol­ogy and evo lu tion ary biol ogy doc­toral stu dent at Arizona.

To test their hypoth e sis, the researchers con structed a sim u la­tion model that gauged how a com mu nity with stands a sys tem built on altru is tic pun ish ment, or selfish-on-selfish pun ish­ment. The authors found that altru ism demands a lot of ini tial expen di ture for the group — in terms of com mu nal time, resources and risk of reprisal from the pun ished — as well as advanced lev els of cog ni tion and cooperation.

On the other hand, a con struct in which a few prof li gate play­ers keep like-minded indi vid u als in check involves only those mem bers of the com mu nity — every one else can pas sively enjoy the ben e fits of fewer peo ple tak ing more than their share. At the same time, the reign ing indi vid u als enjoy uncon­tested spoils and, in some cases, reverence.

Social orders main tained by those who bend the rules play out in nature and human his tory, the authors note: Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no mem ber other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs them selves. Can cer cells will pre vent other tumors from form ing. Medieval knights would pil lage the same civil ians they read ily defended from invaders, while neigh bor hoods ruled by the Ital ian Mafia tra di­tion ally had the low est lev els of crime.

What comes from these arrange ments, the researchers con­clude, is a sense of order and equal ity that the group even tu­ally takes upon itself to enforce, thus giv ing rise to altruism.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byPrinceton University. The original article was written by Mor gan Kelly.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

  1. Omar Tonsi Eldakar, Andrew C. Gallup, William Wallace Driscoll. When Hawks Give Rise To Doves: The Evo lu­tion and Tran si tion of Enforce ment Strate gies.Evolution, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/evo.12031
Princeton University (2013, January 22). From dark hearts comes the kindness of humankind.ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from

Interest in Arts Predicts Social Responsibility

ScienceDaily (Aug. 16, 2012) — If you sing, dance, draw, or act — and especially if you watch others do so — you probably have an altruistic streak, according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

If you sing, dance, draw, or act — and especially if you watch others do so — you probably have an altruistic streak. (Credit: © Sandra Cunningham / Fotolia)


People with an active interest in the arts contribute more to society than those with little or no such interest, the researchers found. They analyzed arts exposure, defined as attendance at museums and dance, music, opera and theater events; and arts expression, defined as making or performing art.

“Even after controlling for age, race and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance and altruism,” said Kelly LeRoux, assistant professor of public administration at UIC and principal investigator on the study.

In contrast to earlier studies, Generation X respondents were found to be more civically engaged than older people.

LeRoux’s data came from the General Social Survey, conducted since 1972 by the National Data Program for the Sciences, known by its original initials, NORC. A national sample of 2,765 randomly selected adults participated.

“We correlated survey responses to arts-related questions to responses on altruistic actions — like donating blood, donating money, giving directions, or doing favors for a neighbor — that place the interests of others over the interests of self,” LeRoux said. “We looked at ‘norms of civility.’ Previous studies have established norms for volunteering and being active in organizations.”

The researchers measured participation in neighborhood associations, church and religious organizations, civic and fraternal organizations, sports groups, charitable organizations, political parties, professional associations and trade unions.

They measured social tolerance by two variables:

  • Gender-orientation tolerance, measured by whether respondents would agree to having gay persons speak in their community or teach in public schools, and whether they would oppose having homosexually themed books in the library.
  • Racial tolerance, measured by responses regarding various racial and ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. Eighty percent of the study respondents were Caucasian, LeRoux said.

The researchers measured altruistic behavior by whether respondents said they had allowed a stranger to go ahead of them in line, carried a stranger’s belongings, donated blood, given directions to a stranger, lent someone an item of value, returned money to a cashier who had given too much change, or looked after a neighbor’s pets, plants or mail.

“If policymakers are concerned about a decline in community life, the arts shouldn’t be disregarded as a means to promote an active citizenry,” LeRoux said. “Our positive findings could strengthen the case for government support for the arts.”

The study was based on data from 2002, the most recent year in which the General Social Survey covered arts participation. LeRoux plans to repeat the study with results from the 2012 survey, which will include arts data.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Illinois at Chicago. 


University of Illinois at Chicago (2012, August 16). Interest in arts predicts social responsibility. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 19, 2012, from

Giving Time Can Give You Time

ScienceDaily (July 13, 2012) — Many people these days feel a sense of “time famine” — never having enough minutes and hours to do everything. We all know that our objective amount of time can’t be increased (there are only 24 hours in a day), but a new study suggests that volunteering our limited time — giving it away — may actually increase our sense of unhurried leisure.

Across four different experiments, researchers found that people’s subjective sense of having time, called ‘time affluence,’ can be increased: compared with wasting time, spending time on oneself, and even gaining a windfall of ‘free’ time, spending time on others increased participants’ feelings of time affluence.

Lead researcher and psychological scientist Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania believes this is because giving away time boosts one’s sense of personal competence and efficiency, and this in turn stretches out time in our minds. Ultimately, giving time makes people more willing to commit to future engagements despite their busy schedules.

This new research, conducted by Mogilner and co-authors Zoe Chance of the Yale School of Management and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, is forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Journal Reference:

  1. Cassie Mogilner, Zoe Chance and Michael I. Norton. Giving Time Can Give You Time. Psychological Science, 2012 (in press)

The More Gray Matter You Have, the More Altruistic You Are

ScienceDaily (July 11, 2012) — The volume of a small brain region influences one’s predisposition for altruistic behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich show that people who behave more altruistically than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing for the first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.

Why are some people very selfish and others very altruistic? Previous studies indicated that social categories like gender, income or education can hardly explain differences in altruistic behavior. Recent neuroscience studies have demonstrated that differences in brain structure might be linked to differences in personality traits and abilities. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich headed by Ernst Fehr, Director of the Department of Economics, show that there is a connection between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.

To investigate whether differences in altruistic behavior have neurobiological causes, volunteers were to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person. The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Such a sacrifice can be deemed altruistic because it helps someone else at one’s own expense. The researchers found major differences in this respect: Some participants were almost never willing to sacrifice money to benefit others while others behaved very altruistically.

More gray matter

The aim of the study, however, was to find out why there are such differences. Previous studies had shown that a certain region of the brain — the place where the parietal and temporal lobes meet — is linked to the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their thoughts and feelings. Altruism is probably closely related to this ability. Consequently, the researchers suspected that individual differences in this part of the brain might be linked to differences in altruistic behavior. And, according to Yosuke Morishima, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, they were right: “People who behaved more altruistically also had a higher proportion of gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes.”

Differences in brain activity

The participants in the study also displayed marked differences in brain activity while they were deciding how to split up the money. In the case of selfish people, the small brain region behind the ear is already active when the cost of altruistic behavior is very low. In altruistic people, however, this brain region only becomes more active when the cost is very high. The brain region is thus activated especially strongly when people reach the limits of their willingness to behave altruistically. The reason, the researchers suspect, is that this is when there is the greatest need to overcome man’s natural self-centeredness by activating this brain region.

Ernst Fehr adds: “These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone.” The volume of gray matter is also influenced by social processes. According to Fehr, the findings therefore raise the fascinating question as to whether it is possible to promote the development of brain regions that are important for altruistic behavior through appropriate training or social norms.

Journal Reference:

  1. Yosuke Morishima, Daniel Schunk, Adrian Bruhin, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr. Linking Brain Structure and Activation in Temporoparietal Junction to Explain the Neurobiology of Human Altruism. Neuron, 12 July 2012 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.05.021