The “love hormone” turns lions into kittens

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In the Rietspruit reserve. Photo: AFP / VNA / CVN

These works, published Wednesday, March 30, in the journal iScience, could provide valuable assistance in light of the urban expansion, which is forcing some animals to congregate in reserves. “I have always loved lions“, explained Jessica Burkhart, neuroscientist and lead author of the study. 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 reject that trend. They live in groups and win and defend territories on the African savannah. “Male lions, for example, leave their group when they are a few years old, meet other males they do not know (…), to whom they will commit for life.“, she explained. This kind of behavior indicates that lions – unlike leopard or cheetah loners – are biologically programmed to be social in certain situations. Which made them an interesting animal to test for oxytocin.

Greater tolerance

Oxytocin strengthens social bonds. It appears in a mother’s brain looking into her newborn baby’s eyes, causing a feeling of happiness and well-being. Some therapists even suggest that couples facing marital problems look into each other’s eyes to release oxytocin. Similar effects have been observed in other species, for example between humans and their dogs.

Jessica Burkhart and her colleagues worked in the Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa and used pieces of meat to lure lions. The hormone had to be injected directly onto their noses using something resembling an old perfume bottle to reach the brain directly. The 23 lions that received the treatment proved to be more tolerant of other lions in their space, especially when they were in possession of a desirable object.

“When the lions got oxytocin, they got their favorite toy, and we saw the distance (between them and their peers) reduced from 7 m without treatment to 3.5 m with it,” detailed Jessica Burkhart. Treated lions also no longer roared back to listen to recordings of intrusive roars – unlike lions who received no treatment or others who had only been sprayed with saline solution.

A fear

This reduced aggression towards alien lions is particularly encouraging, according to the researcher, because oxytocin is also known to have a perverse effect in humans: if it evokes positive feelings towards close humans, it can also increase rivalry to outsiders. According to Jessica Burkhart, this treatment can be helpful in several scenarios. First, it could help lions rescued from circuses or zoos in war zones and then placed in shrines.

In addition, lions are facing a growing problem: Cities are expanding and penetrating more and more into their territory. Defenders of animals must therefore transport them to reserves where groups who do not know each other are forced to rub themselves. Oxytocin could help prevent conflicts here. Finally, the treatment could also help when the lions are returned to the wild, so that they better adapt to their new social environment, by doing so “more curious and less scared“, according to Mrs. Burkhart.

But the treatment also raises a fear: that unscrupulous people – in the style of zoo officials portrayed in the documentary series In the realm of animals – Use it to allow visitors to cuddle with animals. A practice that is much criticized by associations. “There are corrupt people out there. But hopefully oxytocin will help more than it will hurt,” wants the researcher.


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