Emotional contagion in response to distress calls in cockatiels (<em>Nymphicus hollandicus</em>) — ASN Events

Emotional contagion in response to distress calls in cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) (#330)

Agatha Liévin-Bazin 1 , Olivier Clerc 1 , Auguste MP von Bayern 2 3 , Dalila Bovet 1
  1. Laboratoire Éthologie Cognition Développement, Nanterre, France
  2. Behavioral Ecology group, Avian Cognition Laboratory, Oxford, United Kingdom
  3. Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology, Seewisen, Germany

Empathy is the ability to identify and share emotional states with others. According to de Waal et al. (2008), the lowest level is ‘emotional contagion’, a mechanism by which  a certain emotion is transferred from one individual to another. It is best illustrated by the example of newborn babies inducing each other to cry all together at maternity wards. Vocal communication is a useful tool for studying emotional contagion. Indeed, it has been already demonstrated that an acoustic signal can contain cues on physical condition and emotional state of the emitter. Distress calls are vocalizations that animals use in situations of extreme distress such aswhen caught by a predator, have been used in this context. These specific calls are known to arouse high reactions in receivers. It has been shown that when mice hear distress calls from congeners, it impacts their heart rate (Chen et al 2011). In this study, we are reproducing a protocol used with domestic pigs (Düpjan et al 2011) and will adapt it to cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), the smallest representatives of the cockatoo family. These birds are extremely social animals and vocally communicate within groups. Nine birds were tested individually in a sound-proof chamber. During the experiment, each bird heard three different sounds in a pseudo-randomized order: white noise as a control, distress calls from an affiliate conspecific and distress calls from a non-affiliate bird. Preliminary video analysis suggests that birds attended towards the white noise (duration of “immobility”, head orientation towards the amplifier) whereas they showed stress responses in reaction to the distress calls (flying up, i.e. escape attempts, calls and higher levels of general locomotor activity). It also appears that birds calm down earlier after hearing distress calls from a non-affiliate compared to an affiliate. These preliminary results show that cockatiels are stressed upon hearing the distress calls of affiliate individuals and that they respond to a lesser extent to non-affiliate birds. 

  1. Chen QL, Panksepp JB, Lahvis GP. 2009. Empathy is moderated by genetic background in mice. PLoS ONE, 4:e4387
  2. Düpjan S, Tuchscherer A, Langbein J, Schön PC, Manteuffel G, Puppe B. 2011. Behavioural and cardiac responses towards conspecific distress calls in domestic pigs (Sus scrofa), Physiology & Behavior, 103, 445–452
  3. De Waal F. 2008. Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59:279–300