For years, scientists have sprayed lions’ noses with oxytocin, nicknamed the love hormone. As a result, they became much more friendly with their neighbors and less quick to roar at lions they did not know.
This work, published Wednesday in the journal iScience, could provide valuable help in the face of urban sprawl, forcing some animals to gather on reserves.
“I’ve always liked lions,” Jessica Burkhart, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, told AFP. After studying the brains of these animals in the lab, he wanted to observe them in real life.
Although cats have a reputation for being independent, lions do. They live in groups, and gain and defend territories in the African savannah.
“Male lions, for example, leave their group when they are a few years old, they meet other males they do not know (…), with whom they will be linked for life,” he explains.
This type of behavior indicates that lions, unlike leopards or solitary cheetahs, are biologically configured to be social in certain situations. Which made it an interesting animal to test oxytocin.
Oxytocin strengthens social bonds. It appears in a mother’s brain looking into her 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 at the Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa, using pieces of meat to bait the lions.
The hormone had to be sprayed directly into the nose, using what looked like an old perfume bottle, to reach directly to the brain.
The 23 lions receiving treatment were found to be more tolerant of other lions in their space, especially when in possession of a desirable object.
“Once the lions received oxytocin, they were given their favorite toy, and we saw that the distance (between them and their conspecifics) was reduced from 7 meters without treatment, to 3.5 meters with her,” Jessica explained. Burkhart.
Treated lions also did not roar again to hear recordings of intruding roars, unlike lions that received no treatment or others that had only been sprayed with saline.
This reduction in aggression towards foreign lions is especially encouraging, according to the researcher, because oxytocin is also known to have a perverse effect on humans: if it causes positive feelings towards close people, it can also increase rivalries with those outside.
According to Jessica Burkhart, this treatment could be useful 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 invading their territory more and more. Therefore, animal advocates have to transport them to reserves, where unknown groups are forced to scrub. Oxytocin could help prevent conflict here.
Finally, treatment could also help when lions return to the wild, to better adapt to their new social environment, making them “more curious and less porous,” according to Burkhart.
But the treatment also raises fears that unscrupulous people – in line with zoo officials portrayed in the documentary series “In the Kingdom of the Wild” – will use it to allow visitors to take in animals. A practice much criticized by associations.
“In fact, there are corrupt people. But we can expect oxytocin to help more than it will hurt,” the researcher wishes.