Suicide in the Animal Kingdom


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Today's lesson about the feasibility of a zombie virus began with a series of gruesome videos in which organisms invaded other organisms. While watching the especially awful video of wasp larvae in a caterpillar, I couldn't help but wonder if the caterpillar knew what was going on. Granted, the larvae eventually took over its brain, but did it ever realize that another organism was inhabiting its body? And if it did, wouldn't it try to kill itself before the invader did? That question led me to the biggest question of all-do animals have suicidal tendencies? This subject is a very interesting one that has many societal and religious implications. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine both determined that suicide "was an unrepentable sin" on the grounds that it was not natural. This kind of logic is similar to the argument that homosexuality is not natural either. However, based on our discussion in class it appears as though that argument is not valid, as might be the case in regards to suicide.

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It is important to note that there is very little research and data on animal suicide. In fact, nearly all evidence that it exists is anecdotal. Though observational experimentation is feasible, a randomized control trial on organisms other than bacteria and possible rodents would be unethical. Discovery News published an article in 2010 about the topic. As the article explains, "Animal suicides were often seen as acts of abuse, madness, love or loyalty-the same causes then given for human suicides". This certainly gives a new perspective on the matter, perpetuated in research published in 2010 by the British journal Endeavour. Sadly the article is only available in print in the university library, but luckily one of the authors, Edmund Ramsden, offered commentary in the Discovery News article. He explained the significance of research on animal suicide, stating that "You begin to challenge the definition of suicide...it's not necessarily even a choice".
One example of suicidal behavior in animals is the case of the pea aphid, an insect that, as the article in Nature explains, is known to explode itself thereby sacrificing its life in order to protect its surrounding relatives from predators such as the lady bug. Worker ants are also known to die in order to protect the colony. There is also folklore and anecdotes that reference animal suicides.
While suicide in the animal kingdom is a fascinating issue, it's difficult to draw any clear conclusions on the topic. Most of the occurrences are anecdotal, which of course does not follow the scientific method whatsoever. However, more research on the topic could have some interesting implications about human suicide and how to prevent it. Is it really possible for an animal to consciously end its life for the same reasons as people? Do you think more research should be done on the topic? Or is this something that will simply remain a part of folklore for a long time to come?

3 Comments

Interesting topic! Considering that humans and animals have many similarities, it is easy to see why some people may think animal suicide is a real thing. My friend has said multiple times that she has witnessed squirrels jump from tree to tree and fall to the ground, and she jokingly calls it "squirrel suicide," but I wonder if it's actually a real thing. Relating to animal suicide, there has been a lot of research on animal depression. Because animals cannot talk, it is a bit harder for scientists to conduct any real research on the animals, but by studying brain activity and simply observing the physical appearance of an animal, scientists can determine if an animal is suffering from depression. One of the problems that comes with studying animal depression is the environment in which it is conducted. Since animals are typically studied in labs and taken away from their natural habitat, it would seem likely that they would suffer from depression if they are away from home. Of course, because we cannot understand animals like humans, we don't know how they overcome depression, although it is well known that veterinarians prescribe antidepressants for house pets like cats or dogs. Studying animals for primarily "human" diseases is very interesting, and I believe, should be studied more frequently.

I never even thought about this topic, but it is so interesting! I definitely think more research should be done on this topic because animals are just as an important part of our world as anything else. Evan, who commented above, makes a great point that animals are probably depressed when they are kept in labs. Therefore, it is not fair to test them on these grounds because the experiment already has confounding third variables.
Dogs, animals that are close to humans in personality, can become depressed, showing similar symptoms as humans, according to Web MD. Dogs are a prime example of animals that can feel like humans because we have witnessed them doing so. My dog knows when I am sad, happy, etc. When I am sad, she comes and stands by me like the most loyal thing I have ever known. When I am happy, she is happy with me when she jumps around and wags her tail. When I was packing for college, she knew I was leaving, and kept looking at me so strangely as if to tell me not to leave her, and then she sat in my suitcase as if to guard my stuff. So if dogs can feel emotions so obviously, I have no doubt they can feel depression. Symptoms of dog depression, which I am sure are similar with other animals, are being withdrawn, inactive, not eating, change in sleeping habits and hiding.
These all sound similar to symptoms of human depression (except the hiding part!). The only difference is humans are here to tell us they are depressed, and animals can only show it. The two biggest causes for dog depression are lost of a companion and loss of an owner. I am sure just as humans have feelings, so do animals. Whether or not they can be suicidal is a very complicated question that might never be fully answered because of lack of means of communication. It might just have to be grouped with those file drawer problems.
Ironically, pets have been named one of the best ways to cope with human depression. Everyday Health credits pets to keeping the human active, from feeling socially withdrawn, and always having a companion. Researchers have linked interaction with animals can “reduce anxiety, ease blood pressure and heart rate, and offset feelings of depression.” I knew the depression aspect, but I had no idea pets could also help these other medical issues. Have you guys ever experienced certain physical or emotional states where your pet ever helped you feel better?
Experiments were done to prove this. At a veteran’s hospital, a man’s depression symptoms drastically lowered after he was constantly exposed to singing birds. In another example, depressed college students were said to have become less depressed after they interacted with a dog. We never really see pets at school here, but it is ironic, because every time I do see a pet here it brings me such joy. Animals are one of the biggest joys of the world, and also one of the things that we take most for granted. There are all these depression pills on the market today, but all you really need is a loving animal!

I've always wondered this, because of the amount of birds that seem to just fly into my car. Why is it that animal depression isn't studied as broadly as human depression? Wouldn't that tend to help more people out by unlocking the meaning of why we get depressed?
Is there some sort of connection between the happiness of humans and the happiness of animals, such as cats and dogs?

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