A recent study on voles revealed that when one vole is distressed, other voles will immediately begin to console their stressed buddy for a good ten minutes. This leads scientists to argue that this is a sign that animals, or at least voles, can experience empathy. Many are quick to shoot down this claim, but the evidence is pretty convincing if you ask me.
The voles in the study exhibited behavior that can almost only be explained as empathy, no matter how many ways you look at it. The vole consoling the stressed comrade would also match his stressed behavior, despite having not experienced any stress. They would even develop higher levels of stress hormones. This sounds an awful lot like empathy to me. Others argue that the behavior of grooming and cleaning that these voles match to their stressed partner is simply a way for them to relieve their own stress. However, this doesn’t explain why the stressed vole doesn’t also groom and take care of the other partner to relieve their own stress. It was the observing vole that pulled out all the stops to groom, and comfort it’s partner more than usual. This clearly shows an emotional difference between the two and implies that one vole is reacting to the stressed voles emotions by feeling them themselves and increasing behavior designed to decrease stress levels. Not only that, but the voles showed biases in whom they showed empathy towards, only comforting partners and familiar voles, and ignoring the discomfort of strangers. This behavior is very similar to the way humans show empathy more for people they are close to emotionally such as family.
Have you ever witnessed behavior in other animals that seemed like empathy or consoling treatment?