August 12, 2022

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Hattie Brooks
1st June 2022

The sounds of the savannah are drowned out by two elephants trumpeting, each approaching a waterhole from a different direction.  

As they get closer, their trumpets, roars and rumbles become louder and their pace faster. Their excitement is visible by the fluid leaking from the temporal glands on the side of their heads. Once they finally reach each other they rumble their joy, entwining their trunks, clinking their tusks, rubbing each other, spinning and flapping their ears. These two elephants are related but have long been apart, and their joyful reunion is something which has been witnessed repeatedly by elephant expert Cynthia Moss, who spent nearly 40 years studying the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

Joy is often perceived as a human emotion, perhaps because, unlike emotions such as fear, it does not obviously increase your chance of survival.  What is the point of joy for animals?  As all brain activity has a cost, either in terms of reducing the brain’s ability to focus on something more critical, or the energetic cost of neural processing, joy must be beneficial on either the individual or community level. 

Do animals even have the neurological capability of emotions such as joy? Emotions that, unlike the inborn, reflex-like emotion of fear, require the involvement of higher brain centres in the cerebral cortex?

This question has in fact been debated since 500BC when Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher, proposed that many animals felt ‘human’ emotions such as joy.  Charles Darwin was also an advocate of animals experiencing higher emotions, writing in The Descent of Man: “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.  Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens and lambs, when playing together, like our children. Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer P. Huber who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies”.

Joy has now been documented in many species, ranging from ‘clever’ animals such as great apes and elephants to much more unlikely ones including birds and antelopes. Would a buffalo experience joy? In North America, buffalo are known to play in snowfields, chasing each other and sliding across the ice whilst excitedly bellowing ‘Gwaa’!

The usefulness of higher emotions such as joy is still debated, but it has been suggested that such emotions help animals to react more adaptively to their environment, thus making them more successful in a complex and changing world. Joy could encourage animals to seek out positive scenarios, build relationships or even learn novel skills useful for survival. Playful behaviour is especially evident in younger animals, supporting the idea that positive emotions such as joy encourage repetition. A lion cub who practices pouncing on its litter mates again and again, or a baby chimpanzee who repeatedly jumps from one low branch to another, seems likely to be successful as an adult.

There is still much to be learned about higher emotions in animals and how, or if, they impact animals as individuals and as part of wider populations. A continual challenge is integrating the ‘hard data’ gained through scientific studies and experiments with the extremely valuable but perceived ‘unscientific’ data collected by animal observers worldwide. 

This will be an interesting decade of discovery!


Hattie Brooks is a subeditor and contributing writer for I, Science. She is studying the MSc Science Communication course at Imperial.