The “love hormone” turns lions into kittens

(AFP) – For years, scientists have sprayed lions with oxytocin, nicknamed the love hormone. Result: They became much friendlier to their neighbors and less ready to roar against lions they didn’t know.

This work, published Wednesday in iScience magazine, could provide invaluable help in the face of urban sprawl, which is forcing some animals to congregate on reserves.

“I’ve always loved lions,” Jessica Burkhart, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study, told AFP. 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 counter this trend. They live in groups and conquer 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 bond for life,” he said.

This type of behavior indicates that lions, unlike leopards or lone cheetahs, are biologically programmed to be social in certain situations. Which made him an interesting animal to test for oxytocin.

– Greater tolerance –

Oxytocin strengthens social bonds. It appears in a mother’s brain by looking into her newborn’s eyes, causing a feeling of happiness and well-being. Some therapists even suggest that couples facing marital problems look each other in the eye 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, using pieces of meat to attract lions.

The hormone had to be sprayed directly onto the nose, using what looked like an old perfume bottle, to reach the brain directly.

The 23 lions who received the treatment were found to be more tolerant of the other lions in their space, especially when in possession of a desirable item.

“Once the lions received the oxytocin, they received their favorite toy and we saw the distance (between them and their conspecifics) reduced from 7 meters without treatment, to 3.5 meters with it,” explained Jessica Burkhart. .

Additionally, treated lions no longer listened to recordings of intruders’ roars, unlike lions who did not receive treatment or others who were sprayed with only a saline solution.

– A fear –

This reduced aggression towards foreign lions is particularly encouraging, according to the researcher, because it is known that oxytocin also has a perverse effect on humans: if it causes positive feelings towards close people, it can also increase rivalries towards strangers. .

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 sanctuaries.

Furthermore, lions face a growing problem: cities are expanding and invading their territory more and more. The defenders of the animals must therefore transport them to the reserves, where groups that do not know each other are forced to keep side by side. Oxytocin could help prevent conflicts here.

Finally, the treatment could also help when lions return to the wild, so they adapt better to their new social environment, making them “more curious and less fearful,” according to Ms. Burkhart.

But the treatment also raises concerns that unscrupulous people – in the wake of zoo officials portrayed in the “In the Kingdom of the Wild” documentary series – will use it to allow pet visitors. A practice much criticized by associations.

“There are indeed corrupt people. But we can hope that oxytocin helps more than it does harm,” hopes the researcher.

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