The Empathy of Elephants: Trunk To Trunk Consoling Behavior Revealed in New Study

By Rhonda J. Miller on February 23, 2014 7:27 PM EST

Elephant Empathy Revealed In New Study
Elephants get distressed when they see other elephants in trouble and reach out to console them, a new study found. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Rhonda J. Miller)

Elephants are considered intelligent, emotional, and social animals, based on 50 years of field observation, but now scientists have documented behavior that suggests the animals understand when their fellow elephants are in distress and reach out by trunk or sound to offer consolation, according to a study led by Joshua  Plotnik, a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge University in England. 

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"We observed how elephants interacted with others in distress at an elephant camp in Thailand," Plotnik said in a report on the study, "Asian Elephants Assure Other In Distress," published on the blog Peer J. 

"We found that elephants adopted the emotional state of, touched and called out to those in distress, and did so in ways that seemed to mirror the consolatory behavior we see in other species," said Plotnik, who is the founder and CEO of the New York-based nonprofit Think Elephants International. "Elephants often rumbled or chirped toward those in distress and reached out to touch the distressed individual's mouth and face. If a distressed elephant put their ears out and straightened their tail, the bystanders often did the same."

The research was conducted with animals ranging from 3 to 60 years old that lived within a 30-acre area of Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, according to ScienceFor one to two weeks a month for nearly a year, Plotnick spent 30 to 180 minutes a day observing the activities of 26 captive Asian elephants. He recorded their reactions during stressful events such as a dog walking nearby or a snake rustling in the grass.

Previous research found that an elephant often flares its ears, erects its tail, trumpets a roar, or makes a low rumbling sound if upset.  When elephants in the park saw another elephant behaving in this manner, the observering elephants typically responded by "adopting the same emotion," Plotnik said. 

"I think it is a very important study and a very interesting study," Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Live Science. 

However, the study only looked at elephants in captivity, so the findings might not be representative of all elephants, said Bekoff, who was not involved in the study.

"Captive studies may undercut these animals, may underestimate what they are doing," Bekoff said. That's because studies of animals in captivity can fail to fully replicate the social groups and relationships that occur in the wild. 

Plotnik said the study of elephants can add to an understanding of how intelligence evolves in nature and encourage conservation measures. Asian elephants have been observed consoling and reassuring others who are in distress by using touch and vocalizations. This behavior is thought to be rare in the animal kingdom.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

 

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