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Do Pigs Give Each Other a Helping Hand?

Two pigs.
Credit: Kenneth Schipper Vera / Unsplash.
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Pigs are known for their intelligence and social nature. Can they recognize when a conspecific needs help and actively support each other? A groundbreaking project at the Research Institute for Livestock Biology (FBN) in Dummerstorf will investigate these questions.

The project entitled "Let me out! Proximative factors mediating helping behavior in pigs' will use an innovative method to investigate whether pigs help each other out of empathy or selfish reasons. It is carried out in close cooperation with researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna and is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) at the FBN and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. The total funding amounts to 736,089 euros for three years.

Dr. Liza R. Moscovice from FBN and her colleague Prof. Jean-Loup Rault from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna have developed a new method to analyze the helping behavior of pigs. Pigs in their normal social groups are exposed to a situation that is new to them within their usual barn environment: There are two identical compartments in their barn. Each compartment has a window and a door that can only be opened from the outside. This requires a handle to be lifted high enough to release a latch. A pig is briefly taken out of its pen and then placed in one of the two compartments. The other pigs are then free to decide, without any guidance, whether to open a door, and if so, whether to open the door to free the trapped pig,

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"In the first part of the project, we examine the influence of family relationships, dominance relationships and personal experiences of being trapped on the decision to help," explains Dr. Liza R. Moscovice influence the decisions of the pigs. In the second part we will use non-invasive methods to measure how the behavior affects the helping and non-helping pigs on a physical level. Saliva samples will be used to test whether the stress hormone cortisol increases or decreases monitors heart rate, drawing inferences to understand how decisions about helping affect pig physiology."

Are pigs similar to humans in their helping behavior?

In general, rodents are often used as model animals when researching the helping behavior of animals, but pigs are much more similar to humans in their physiology and brain structure. "Our results will help us to understand whether pigs react empathetically to the emotional state of others and whether their helping behavior is based on mechanisms similar to those in humans," explains Dr. Liza R. Moscovice.

First results, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B* , show that pigs open doors to help trapped group members more often and faster than they open doors to empty compartments. In addition, trapped pigs that gave more distress signals were helped more quickly. However, further research is needed to determine the rationale for this behavior.

A deeper understanding of the prosocial behavior of pigs, as well as their emotional state and group dynamics, can make a significant contribution to animal welfare. Pig farmers can use these findings to promote positive group behavior, for example by giving the pigs more control over their environment.

Reference: Moscovice LR, Eggert A, Manteuffel C, Rault JL. Spontaneous helping in pigs is mediated by helper’s social attention and distress signals of individuals in need. Proc R Soc B. 2023;290(2004):20230665. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2023.0665

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