Application of oxytocin can turn lions from ferocious to friendly

(ORDO NEWS) — Leos tend to be reluctant to make new friends. These giant cats fiercely guard their territory and can mortally wound an opponent with a single wave of their paws.

While aggression is an advantage for predators in the wild, it poses real problems for lions in reserves or in captivity, whose numbers are on the rise due to habitat loss.

Researchers working at a wildlife sanctuary in Dinokeng, South Africa, have found that intranasal administration of the “love hormone” oxytocin can make lion encounters less life-threatening. Their work was published March 30 in the journal iScience.

In the summer of 2018 and 2019, a team led by animal biologist Craig Packer and neuroscientist Sarah Heilbronner at the University of Minnesota spent days using pieces of raw meat to lure lions to a fence and spray oxytocin up their noses with a tool that looked like an antique perfume bottle.

“By spraying oxytocin directly into the nose, we know that it can travel down the trigeminal nerve and the olfactory nerve directly into the brain,” says first author Jessica Burkhart. “Otherwise, the blood-brain barrier could filter it out.”

After these treatments, Burkhart and her colleagues observed that the 23 lions given oxytocin were more tolerant of other lions in their space and showed less vigilance towards intruders. “You can see how their facial features immediately soften, they go from wrinkled and aggressive to completely calm,” says Burkhart. “They completely relax. It’s amazing.”

Researchers measure social tolerance by observing how close a lion in possession of a desired object, in this case a toy, will allow others to get close to it.

“After the lions were treated with oxytocin and given their favorite pumpkin toy to play with, we saw that the average distance between them decreased from about 7 meters without treatment to 3.5 meters after oxytocin administration.”

However, in the scenario where food was present, the big cats did not show increased tolerance for each other, even after administration of the hormone.

Importantly for future introductions, hormone-treated lions significantly lowered their vigilance towards potential intruders, never growling in response to recorded growls from unfamiliar lions, while hormone-free lions always growled in response.

Such a treatment may become especially useful as the cities in Africa expand and the territory of the lions is encroached. To keep them safe and away from people, many of them have been moved to private fenced sanctuaries, which often results in lions from different prides mingling with each other.

“We are currently working on introducing animals that have been rescued from circuses, overseas or from war zones and are now living in conservation areas,” says Burkhart.

“We hope this will help animals that are relocated to the wild become more accustomed to their new social environment, so that they are more inquisitive and less fearful, leading to more successful crossbreeding.”

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