Love’s effect can sometimes be mystifying. A tender embrace from a friend or the adoring eyes of a pet can bring us back from anger or sadness at almost any time. Affection soothes the beast inside all of us, and it can even be tracked scientifically. What we feel when we experience love is magical but also the result of a naturally occurring substance called oxytocin.
And it’s so strong it can even make a lion purr.
The “love hormone”
Oxytocin is commonly known as the “love hormone,” and it has one powerful effect on all mammals. It plays a critical role in how we bond with each other. Whenever we experience physical affection, our brains release oxytocin to reinforce our connection with romantic partners, friends, our children, our parents, and even our pets.
Being mammals, and very social mammals at that, we knew that lions were moved by oxytocin as well, but it wasn’t until recently we found out just how easy it was to move them.
In 2018 and 2019, researchers went to a wildlife reserve in South Africa and sprayed a dose of oxytocin into 23 lions’ noses. The effects were noticeable almost immediately. Lions sprayed with oxytocin were much more docile and open to sharing their space than the lions that weren’t. Not only that, these fierce and wary predators were much less alert, relaxing, and blinking a lot, a common sign that they are at ease.
“After the lions were treated with oxytocin, and we gave them their favorite pumpkin toy to play with, we saw the average distance between them drop from about seven meters with no treatment to about 3.5 meters after oxytocin was administered,” says neuroscientist Jessica Burkhart, lead author of the study.
Saving the world with love
Researchers and zoologists already have ideas about how to use oxytocin to help lions. It can be used to reintroduce lions from circuses and war zones, who are unaccustomed to company, back into the wild alongside a new pride. Careful oxytocin doses could also be used on lions in captivity or in need of veterinary care. The “love hormone” could afford endless applications for the conservation of lions or many other at-risk mammals.