Research Suggests Asian Elephants Console Each Other When Distressed

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A new study published in the journal PeerJ finds that Asian elephants offer physical comfort when they sense another elephant feeling anxiety. They express sympathy by trumpeting caring noises and touching each other with their trunks.

Elephants Feel Empathy, Console One Another

Animal behaviorists studied 26 captive elephants in a sanctuary in Thailand. They concluded that many elements of the elephants' behavior comfort distressed herd members. This behavior includes high-pitched chirping sounds and putting their trunks in others' mouths.

"Elephants get distressed when they see others in distress, reaching out to calm them down, not unlike the way chimpanzees or humans embrace someone who is upset," said co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

Consoling behaviors are rare in nature. Some birds, dogs, apes and humans are the only other known species to offer comfort and support to one another.

"... Other touches, specifically in this context, serve to reassure the other elephant," study co-author Joshua Plotnik, a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and chief executive of Think Elephants International. "We also see the elephants put their trunks into each others' mouths, which seems to be a way of saying, 'I'm here to help you.'"

In the study, behaviorists scared the elephants under observation. They used snakes, dogs or other unfriendly elephants roaming past. They then studied how the elephants responded to each other.

"When an elephant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rumble, trumpet or roar," Plotnik said. "The consistency with which elephants responded to a friend in distress was quite remarkable. Rarely did an elephant give a distress call without a response from a friend or group member nearby."

Scientists observed elephants displaying comforting behavior in the wild before, but this is the first concrete evidence.

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