Altruism- Animal Behavior

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Altruism is a social and interpersonal construct in which one expresses concern for others [1]. In essence, it is an action that is done with the intention of helping others, without concern for oneself. During an altruistic act, one party usually sacrifices something for the greater good of the other party, while expecting nothing in return. There are 3 main types of altruism: adaptive, reciprocal, and facultative

Adaptive Altruism

Adaptive altruism is a behavior strategy where the behavior increases the assisting animal’s fitness[2]. This is different from the traditional maladaptive altruism, where the assisting animal’s fitness is lowered. Specifically, this type of altruism leads to increased reproductive and genetic success. One unique example of this is altruistic adaptive death. This is when an individual dies to increase their inclusive fitness(reproductive success). One type of adaptive death is adaptive suicide done by host parasites. Natural selection may be a driver of this suicidal behavior. This is especially the case when the effects of being infected with a parasite can cause sterility. This reduces the host’s overall inclusive fitness[3]. Additionally, once the parasite has left a host, they are more likely to infect the kin of the host. This theory suggests that the host organisms would kill themselves in order to prevent the spreading of the parasite to protect its kin.

Altruistic behavior is also seen in groups of ravens. A 2012 study investigated raven agonistic behavior patterns in captive ravens. The researchers found that the ravens would only support and care for ravens that preened them. These were the kin and dominant raven to the selected individuals[4]. Support through kin pairs is done to increase inclusive fitness. This is an adaptive behavior as the raven that gives support and care also gets the support back, thus benefiting from its actions. Adaptive altruism is usually focused on the reproductive fitness of organisms.

Reciprocal altruism

Reciprocal altruism is when something or someone does an action that is helpful to others and then it is later paid back to whoever did the action. There is also indirect altruism in which the repayment is to something other than the individual who did the action[5]. The reason this is done is to help one another likely within their group whether that be large or family. There are many examples of reciprocal altruism but one study found this behavior in humans when it came to making donations. A study used data from, which is a major crowdfunding platform in India, to analyze the trends in behaviors for how people donated on the platform. What they found is that more people donated to non-profit organizations that would qualify for tax deductions as opposed to those that didn’t especially when there was wording that suggested tax deductions were available with donations [6]. The reason people were donating was to help other people but they were more inclined to do so when they knew they were also going to be repaid later in the form of tax deductions. A great indirect altruism example is found in prairie dogs. A study was done looking at black-tailed prairie dogs and how they alert in terms of nepotism. What was found is that both females and males alerted when they saw the stuffed beaver due to the family being near and the study also found that males can change the call depending on how close the family members are in terms of the nuclear family[7]. When the call was made they were benefiting their family by alerting them danger was near but was not doing so to receive anything personally but for the family to receive the benefits of surviving.

Facultative Altruism

Facultative altruism is the loss of personal reproductive success, but in doing so, a boost of indirect fitness is gained. This leads to kin selection. Otherwise known as optional altruism[8]. A study performed by Russell et al. in 2006[9] demonstrates that meerkats will forage insects and bring them to the youngsters, providing more fitness to other offspring. Not all individuals do this as this does not directly affect the adult’s fitness but indirectly boosts fitness through giving the youngsters more food and in turn, fitness.


  1. Filkowski MM, Cochran RN, Haas BW. Altruistic behavior: mapping responses in the brain. Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics. 2016;5:65-75
  2. Alcock J. 2013. Animal behavior: an evolutionary approach. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
  3. Fraser ON, Bugnyar T. 2012. Reciprocity of agonistic support in ravens. Animal Behaviour. 83(1):171–177. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.10.023.
  4. Humphreys RK, Ruxton GD. 2019. Adaptive suicide: is a kin-selected driver of fatal behaviours likely? Biology Letters. 15(2):20180823. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2018.0823.
  5. Alcock J. 2013. Animal behavior: an evolutionary approach. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
  6. Indu Khurana. 2021. “Legitimacy and Reciprocal Altruism in Donation-Based Crowdfunding: Evidence from India.” Journal of Risk and Financial Management 14 (194): 194. doi:10.3390/jrfm14050194.
  7. Hoogland, John L. “Nepotism and Alarm Calling in the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys Ludovicianus).” Animal Behaviour 31, no. 2 (1983): 472–79
  8. Chapais B, Savard L, Gauthier C. Kin selection and the distribution of altruism in relation to degree of kinship in Japanese macaques ( Macaca fuscata ). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 2001;49(6):493-502. doi:10.1007/s002650100335
  9. Russell A, Young A, Spong G, Jordan N, Clutton-Brock T. Helpers increase the reproductive potential of offspring in cooperative meerkats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2006;274(1609):513-520. doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3698

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