On my wildlife walk, one of the animals I talk about is ravens, which I refer to as flying bears because they’re so smart.

Well, it turns out that ravens not only are smart but are also empathetic. While it’s long been assumed that animals have no thoughts or feelings, research in recent years has increasingly shown that this assumption is not true. Yet, acts of altruism documented during research are often referred to as “seemingly altruistic behavior,” with explanations that the behavior isn’t truly altruistic because the behavior favors passing on family genes (kin selection) or the altruism is just the returning of a favor (reciprocity).  If you think about it, how many acts of human altruism could be ascribed to kin selection, reciprocity, or an expectation of a reward (in this life or the next)?

In this study, the authors seem to believe that ravens actually feel empathy and they describe the behavior as “altruistic” (not “seemingly altruistic”). The behavior seems to depend on the strength of their relationships. It doesn’t seem that surprising because adult ravens form lasting (lifelong) relationships and do pair bonding activities not unlike those humans do, such as grooming each other, gift giving, and joint acrobatics (perhaps akin to dancing?).

Wired Science

Ravens Console Each Other After Fights

By Jennifer Welsh
May 17, 2010

After ravens see a friend get a beat down, they approach the victim and appear to console it, according to new research.

Orlaith Fraser and her co-author Thomas Bugnyar watched the aftermath of 152 fights over a two year period between 13 hand-reared young adult ravens housed at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria. What they found was the first evidence for birds consoling one another.

“It’s not a good thing for your partner to be distressed,” Fraser explained. “It’s interesting to see these behaviors in animals other than chimpanzees. It seems to be more ingrained in evolutionary history.”

Read the rest of the article… or read the full journal article on PLoS.

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