Do you want to calm down an angry wild beast? Forget pepper sprays and bet on oxytocin. This would be an exaggeration to paraphrase the results of a study by a team led by American zoologist Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, published in the scientific journal iScience. Oxytocin sprayed on its nose significantly calmed aggressive lions.
Oxytocin is popularly called the love hormone. Its molecule consists of a short chain of nine amino acids. It is synthesized in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, from where it travels to the pituitary gland. There it enters the bloodstream and is involved in the regulation of many vital functions. For example, it causes contractions of the uterine muscle at the beginning of childbirth, it participates in processes important for the release of milk from the mammary gland.
Oxytocin is referred to as the love hormone for its ability to strengthen interpersonal relationships, such as the bond between the newborn and its mother. It increases empathy in people and thus helps to better relationships in teams. Oxytocin plays an important role even in establishing a strong relationship between the dog and his master.
No wonder the love hormone is tested in sprays as a means of relieving many mental problems, including mental depression. Packer and his co-workers decided to strengthen the “collective spirit” among lions kept in the zoo by oxytocin.
Oxytocin makes rivals friends
Visitors to the zoo are expressly forbidden to feed the animals. Attempts to attract the beloved food to the edge of the paddock so that the visitor comes into closer contact with it are a gamble. In many cases, it ends in severe injury or even death.
But that’s exactly what Packer did with his colleagues. They lured the lions to the raw meat and tried to spray oxytocin on their snouts. At the same time, they behaved like professionals, and neither Packer nor any of his team suffered any damage.
The nose is an ideal place for oxytocin application, because it penetrates from the nasal mucosa into the trigeminal nerve and olfactory nerve and from there it gets directly into the brain. If oxytocin circulates through the blood, it does not enter the brain because it does not pass into the nervous tissue through the vessel wall. In total, the researchers tested twenty-three lions, and they behaved much calmer after a dose of oxytocin. They even tolerated the violation of their sovereign territory.
“You can see their features suddenly soften. The aggressive facial expression with wrinkles will smooth out and they will get a completely calm expression. The hot heads cool down. It’s absolutely amazing, “says Craig Packer, the lions’ transformation after the oxytocin spray.
Researchers have been able to measure the increase in tolerance. They watched the distance the lion allowed another gang member to approach while holding a favorite lion toy, such as a heavy, impenetrable ball. The lions, who had been sprayed with saline or no sprays by the scientists, had warned the intruders as he approached seven meters.
After a portion of oxytocin, however, he let the lion bring the competitor closer to three and a half meters. However, oxytocin did not increase lion tolerance when fed. Conversely, when scientists played the roar of foreign lions to lions, lions sprayed with oxytocin again showed increased tolerance. This manifested itself in the fact that they did not return the threatening roars.
The hormone will help the lions return to the wild
The research results of the Packer team offer practical use. African cities are constantly expanding and people on the periphery are more likely to come into contact with wildlife, including lions. To prevent misfortune, lions are captured and transported to private reservations. Lions from different gangs and different areas meet there, which is the cause of frequent fights between beasts.
Oxytocin sprays could prevent or at least alleviate these fights. Similarly, oxytocin spray can help when lions obtained from circuses or zoos are included in the group’s reserves.
It is not clear to what extent it takes oxytocin as a sedative and suppresses the lion’s aggressiveness towards humans. But when a beast attacks, it probably wouldn’t be worthwhile to rely on the hormone spray turning the lion into an obedient lamb.