For years, scientists have sprayed lions’ noses with oxytocin, nicknamed the love hormone. The result: they became much friendlier with their neighbors and were less quick to roar at lions they didn’t know.
The paper, published Wednesday in the journal iScience, could be a valuable help in the face of urban expansion that is forcing some animals to congregate on reservations.
“I’ve always loved lions,” Jessica Burkhart, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, told AFP. After studying the brains of these animals in the laboratory, she wanted to observe them in real life.
While cats have a reputation for being independent, lions resist this trend. They live in groups, seize and defend territories in the African savannah.
“Male lions, for example, leave their group when they are a few years old, meet other males they don’t know (…) with whom they bond for life,” she explains.
This behavior indicates that lions – unlike leopards or solitary cheetahs – are biologically programmed to communicate in certain situations. What made this animal interesting to test for oxytocin.
– Great tolerance –
Oxytocin strengthens social bonds. It appears in the brain of a mother looking into the eyes of a newborn child, causing a feeling of happiness and well-being. Some therapists even suggest that couples facing marital problems make eye contact to release oxytocin.
Similar effects have been observed in other species, such as between humans and their dogs.
Jessica Burkhart and her colleagues have been working in the Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa, using chunks of meat as bait for lions.
The hormone had to be sprayed directly into their noses, using what looked like an old perfume bottle, to go directly to their brains.
The 23 treated lions were found to be more tolerant of other lions in their space, especially when they are in possession of the desired object.
“After the lions received oxytocin, they were given their favorite toy, and we saw that the distance (between them and their relatives) decreased from 7 meters without treatment to 3.5 meters with it,” said Jessica Burkhart.
The treated lions also no longer roared when listening to recordings of the intruder’s roar, unlike lions that were not treated or other lions that were only sprayed with saline.
– Fear –
This reduction in aggression towards foreign lions is particularly encouraging, the researcher says, because oxytocin is known to have a perverse effect on humans: if it causes positive feelings towards loved ones, it can also increase rivalry with outsiders.
According to Jessica Burkhart, such treatment can be useful in several cases.
First, it could help lions rescued from circuses or zoos in war zones and then placed in reserves.
In addition, the lions are facing a growing problem: cities are expanding and encroaching on their territory more and more. Therefore, animal advocates must transport them to reserves, where groups that do not know each other are forced to communicate with each other. This is where oxytocin can help prevent conflicts.
Finally, treatment may also help when the lions return to the wild so they can better adapt to their new social environment by making them “more curious and less shy,” according to Ms Burkhart.
But the appeal also raises concerns that unscrupulous people — in the vein of the zoo officials depicted in the documentary series Into the Wild — will use it to allow visitors to pet the animals. A practice much criticized by associations.
“Corrupt people do exist. But one can hope that oxytocin will help more than harm,” the researcher wishes.