Is There a Scientific Explanation Behind Interspecies Friendships?

Is there anything cuter in this world than a puppy hugging a...well, honestly, anything? Seriously, fill in that blank with any noun and you have a cute sentence. Fill it in with another living thing and you have next-level cuteness. Sure, dogs are supposed to be man's best friends, but sometimes they want to spread the puppy-ful friend love around a little and venture out to other species as well. And the phenomenon isn't limited strictly to dogs. Interspecies friendships are one of the most intriguing, inspiring, and internet-worthy things in nature.

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Why do they happen though? Are all animals capable of forging friendships across species lines? Are there special circumstances tat have to exist to make BFFs of two things from different parts of the animal kingdom? Here's what science has to say about the real deal with interspecies friendships.

Do animals form real friendships?

The first issue to tackle when it comes to digging into interspecies friendships is the very idea of friendship itself. Specifically, are animals even capable of forming friendships in the way we think of them or are we just projecting our humanness onto non-human things, anthropomorphizing these creatures like sidekicks in Disney cartoons?

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According to Gordon Burghardt, a psychologist and ecologist at the University of Tennessee, there's a very good chance it's actually the former, believe it or not.

"Mother-infant bonding, no one has a problem extending that from a human to a chimpanzee," he told The Atlantic. "I think if you're careful, it's pretty reasonable to extend behavioral similarities across species."

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There's real research to back up Burghardt's theory that animals form real friendships. The Atlantic article notes that studies have shown, for example, that Chimpanzees use personality as the determining factor when deciding who—and what—to surround themselves with, that elephants actually give each other emotional support when they're stressed out, and bats go full Mean Girls and form cliques like high schoolers when they live in larger colonies. These, of course, are all aspects of friendship also seen among humans.

There are other clues that the friendships formed between animals—even those of different species—aren't just in our heads.

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Anthropologist Barbara King from the College of William & Mary points out that animals who have become friends have been observed to actually grieve for each other when one of them passes away. "In this friendship that formed over years, they worked out a system of cross-species communications," she told Slate, citing as an example an elephant named Tarra who became close to a dog named Bella and then grieved obviously when her friend was killed by coyotes.

Still, many scientists believe that real friendship—which is complex and requires a lot of brainpower to process—is limited to only the smartest animals out there.

What's the definition of an interspecies friendship?

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Speaking to the New York Times, King suggested the following criteria for determining if the interactions between animals qualify as actual friendships:

  • The relationship must be sustained for "some period of time"
  • There must be mutuality—meaning both animals have to be engaging with each other.
  • An "accommodation" of some kind has to be made by the animals to make the friendship possible—this could be a special way the animals seem to communicate or something as large as the animals defying their instincts to eschew their "natural" roles as predator and prey.

Can predators and prey become friends?

If you've seen Zootopia then you know how tough it can be for predators and prey to get along and truly trust each other. But, if you follow the evidence, the utopia of Zootopia doesn't actually seem that far off.

The internet is full of examples of animals that should technically be at odds from a food chain perspective forming unlikely friendships. We love these stories because they seem to speak to a great goodness in the universe.

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In 2015, a tiger named Amur and a goat named Timur captured the hearts of animal lovers around the world when they formed a particularly unlikely bond (Timur was put in Amur's enclosure for food, not friendship).

Back in 2013, before he was a convicted murder-schemer, Netflix star Joe Exotic's Oklahoma zoo made happier headlines when the friendship between Milo, an 11-pound dachshund, and Bonedigger, a 500-pound mildly-disabled lion, went viral.

More recently, we learned of a cheetah at the Columbus Zoo actually has an emotional support dog who helps calm him down.

While these friendships obviously aren't common (especially in the wild), experts say that predators and their prey may be in a unique position to bond on a deep level when the right circumstances arise (and those circumstances, for the record, tend to be that the predator in question is more lonely or bored than it is hungry the first time they meet).

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"Predator and prey animals are already set up to know how to read each other," Donna Haraway, the author of When Species Meet, told The Atlantic. "Predators read prey animals incredible well, because it's how they get dinner. And prey animals read predators very well, because it's how they avoid becoming dinner."

What factors lead to cross-species friendships?

When it comes to cross-species friendships, especially between animals that would be on opposite ends of the food chain in the wild, there are certain factors that make a lifelong bond much more likely:

They start young:

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Most animals from different species who become lifelong buds meet when they're both li'l guys (or girls). This probably isn't surprising to anyone and especially not to anyone who has ever tried to train a dog and a cat to like each other. The task is exponentially easier if you start young.

They've shared the same stresses:

Usually the stress that different species bond over is the shared experience of being held captive in the same place and/or by the same group of humans. But, experts suggest that any shared stressful experience could help foster a cross-species friendship.

"Two very stressed individuals may lean on each other for comfort," Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine told Slate.

They just like each other:

While there are certainly circumstances that seem more likely to foster these unlikely friendships, not all experts think interspecies friendship have to be about anything more than, well, friendship.

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"I think the choices animals make in cross-species relationships are the same as they'd make in same-species relationships," Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, told Slate. "Some dogs don't like every other dog. Animals are very selective about the other individuals who they let into their lives."

Some scientists, like Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, are more skeptical though and think that the cross-species friendships we've observed aren't a part of nature so much as a byproduct of humans keeping animals in captivity.

"To me, that's what kind of removes what would otherwise be interesting," Wynne told the New York Times. "Because it ceases to be directly a story about animal behavior and becomes a story about human impact on the environment, like the difference between gardening and the beauty of natural landscape."

Conclusion

While the scientific community is still a little split over the meaning behind apparent acts of cross-species friendship, the evidence seems clear that, yes, your favorite viral pair of unlikely animal pals are really feeling warm and fuzzy toward each other. What that means and why they got that way are still up for debate.