Examples of Animal Altruism and Symbiosis to Warm your Chilly Soul

It’s no secret that January and February can be a tough time for a lot of us.  Perhaps you’ve heard of “Blue Monday,”  the third Monday in January that is said to be the saddest day of the year.  Here at High Touch High Tech we’re happy to tell you that “Blue Monday” is bunk science and was made up for a marketing campaign.  But at the same time, actual science does point to this time of year as being legitimately hard on our wellbeing for many reasons: the cold, darkness, and feelings of inadequacy and lack after the glitter of the holidays being among them.  In these isolated times, it’s easy to feel lonely and disconnected. 

Somewhere out there, a Clownfish is chilling in its Anemone
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, it might help to know that in the bigger ecological picture, our world is less cold and cruel than it may seem.  There is truly a place in nature for connection, safety, and peace.  Radically different species all over the world form long-term “you help me, I’ll help you” relationships with each other to survive and thrive.  These relationships, where each partner benefits, are known as mutualism.  Altruism among animals, where one organism gives expecting nothing in return, is more controversial but some scientists believe that it has been conclusively documented.  From bacteria in the deepest sea to an anonymous scientist on the end of a blog reaching out to comfort a stranger, all living things are connected, including you.  We hope these stories of animal altruism and mutualism provide a little warmth and light to your world today.

Somewhere out there, an Oxpecker bird is helping its Wildebeest with pesky ticks

Humpback Whales to the Rescue

Somewhere out there, a Humpback Whale is protecting its calf

Animal behavioral scientists use the word “altruism” sparingly, but there have been examples that seem to indicate a sense of kindness in certain animals, such as when a gorilla was documented protecting a human child that fell into its enclosure.  Most possible examples of non-human kindness have been seen in captive animals, but what about the dog-eat-dog, its-a-jungle-out-there world of the wild?  Is the natural world truly devoid of kindness?  Never fear, Humpback Whales to the rescue!  Humpback Whales certainly seem tuned in to the needs of others, and may be “the nicest animals in the world.”  These extremely social creatures spend years raising their vulnerable calves and protecting them from predators. They have also been spotted actively rescuing seals from killer whale attack.  In 2009 researchers documented a case of a single seal, who was being chased by a pod of killer whales and had been pushed into the water.  A humpback whale came up next to the seal, rolled on its back, and carried the very surprised seal to safety!  Humpbacks have been known to protect humans from sharks as well.  If any animal can be classified as being kind, it’s the Humpback Whale.

Partnership in the Abyss

Somewhere way down there, a tubeworm colony is thriving on a volcano

Mutualism is an arrangement seen among animals that is defined as “you help me, I help you.”  A famous example is the tiny cleaner fish that fearlessly enters the mouths of much bigger fish to eat the parasites that irritate their big friends.  The tiny fish gets food and the larger one gets nice clean teeth. There are many cases of mutualism, but one in particular showcases the power that mutualism has to overcome even the most impossible of circumstances.  Deep sea hydrothermal vents were only discovered in 1977, to the astonishment of scientists.  These underwater volcanoes spew out mineral and metal-rich water and can reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit.  As if that weren’t enough, these vents are so far down that sunlight has NEVER reached them.  But even there in the harshest abyss is mutualism. 

Tube Worms, just tube wormin’

The creatures known as tube worms have no stomach, gut, or mouth.  Yet they live in great numbers on these vents and provide food and shelter for other animals, creating the basis of an improbable ecosystem that might be more at home in deep space.  The entire vent community exists because of the tube worm’s mutualism with an incredible bacteria that does not depend on sunlight for food.  Instead of photosynthesis, this bacteria performs chemosynthesis, and converts the metals and minerals into energy that the tube worms can survive on.  The bacteria live in a special organ called the trophosome, inside the tube worm’s body.  The tube worm pulls minerals into its root, and oxygen from its gill-like plumes.  These compounds nourish the bacteria, which convert vent minerals into carbon just as photosynthetic chloroplasts in plants turn sunlight into carbon.  This carbon energy supports the tubeworms that, in turn, nourish life in the abyss.

Fortunata the Marmoset

Somewhere out there, an adorable marmoset is having a snack
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ants are sometimes said to keep aphids as “pets,” feeding them, protecting them, and generally fussing over them.  However, the ants are using the aphids more as domestic animals, feeding off of the sweet nectar they produce.  This is better considered as mutualism, a partnership in nature where both animals benefit.  Do we know of any wild animals that keep others around as pets in the way that we would, purely for fun and affection? Chimpanzees have been seen playing affectionately with small rodents called hyraxes, but usually kill and eat them once bored. It’s controversial, but a group of Capuchin monkeys was observed in the wild taking in a much tinier marmoset orphan, nicknamed Fortunata.  They fed her, held her, and carried her on their backs.  They even visibly adjusted their the force of their movements so they wouldn’t injure the tiny marmoset.  Little Fortunata was raised by the Capuchins from infancy to adulthood, and was treated as gently as a beloved pet until the day she disappeared, likely taken by a predator.

Sources and Further Reading:

Blue Monday Debunked: https://www.msn.com/en-ie/news/other/is-blue-monday-real-the-science-behind-the-most-depressing-day-of-the-year/ar-AASRCor

Introduction to Symbiosis and Mutualism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eChtyqSqUIs

Humpback Whale Altruism in the Wild: https://whalescientists.com/humpback-whales-altruism/

Humpback Whale Protects Human: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXNCCdcBhcY

Gorilla Protects Child: https://www.foxnews.com/science/watch-a-gorilla-rescue-a-boy-that-fell-into-its-pit-in-1996

Symbiosis at Hydrothermal Vents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3gRQEOC6M4

More on Chemosynthetic Bacteria: https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/deep-sea-tubeworms-get-versatile-inside-help/

Fortunata the Marmoset: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animals-and-us/201006/are-humans-the-only-animals-keep-pets

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