Take African grey parrots, for example: A recent study revealed that they voluntarily gave the tokens they were trained to exchange for food to parrots that had no tokens. The biologists who conducted this study were surprised when they realized that the parrots seemed to have a genuine understanding of when and why their partners needed their help—they would rarely give the tokens over when the window to exchange them for food was closed.
Because most animals experience a different level of cognition than humans, we have to consider their helping behaviors within a unique scientific framework. What drives humans to act altruistically may be vastly different than what drives animals to act altruistically.
That doesn’t mean animals are incapable of being altruistic, though.
Evolutionary biologists determined that an animal’s behaviors are altruistic when they benefit other individuals, even to the potential detriment of themselves. Species with complex social structures like bees, ants and termites provide great examples of biological altruism. For social insects, workers devote their lives to caring for the queen, which is the only member of the colony to reproduce.
By limiting their own ability to reproduce, worker insects guarantee the longevity of the colony by supporting and protecting the queen and her brood. This is a great example of how animals take actions that don’t personally serve them to benefit their species as a whole: These altruistic behaviors increase the colony’s chance of survival by promoting and safeguarding reproduction above all else.
For other social animals, altruism amounts to making a long-term investment in the overall wellbeing of their clan. Vampire bats must eat every 70 hours to avoid starvation, but it is common for them to regurgitate small amounts of their own food for roost-mates that did not successfully feed.
While it’s clear that altruism is commonly expressed by animals that live in the same social group, whales and dolphins have been observed performing interspecies (occurring between species) altruistic acts.
In 2013, a bottlenose dolphin with an S-shaped spine was "adopted," for a period of time, into a group of sperm whales. Until this event was witnessed, sperm whales were not known to forge cross-species social bonds.
In 2008, two pygmy whales that had accidentally stranded on a New Zealand beach were successfully led into deeper waters by a bottlenose dolphin. A local conservation officer said, "The dolphin managed in a couple of minutes what we had failed to do in an hour and a half."
These instances of whales and dolphins working together are puzzling because they don’t fit neatly into the standard definition of biological altruism, and there’s no answer as to why an animal would assist a member of another species to benefit their own ... yet.
Bottlenose dolphins are complex, social animals—learn more about them here!