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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jsta908983

This whole thing, comments included, made me cry. I wish humans behaved more like animals, at times.

February 20 2014 at 7:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
CHUCKIE

If people were more like elephants, we'd all be better for it.

February 20 2014 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
car nut

Another useless study. How much was wasted figuring that one out? I wish I could get a grant to tell you what an ant does on his spare time.

February 20 2014 at 1:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ebneila

Most animals can sense things humans completely overlook. For instance, dogs and cats can read a person's character at a glance. Owners have many tales of how their pets seem to know good people from bad, even who is ill or depressed

February 20 2014 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eveorah

A horse I owned comforted me once when I was under a great deal of distress. I had close family members terminally ill, one in a rest home and one in the hospital, I had lost a parent the year before. I went out to the pasture where I kept him, I hadn't seen him much because of all that was going on. I took my grooming tools out with me and he recognized the sound of the truck and met me at the fence. I groomed him and finally dropped the tools and put my face against his neck and began to cry. He curled his neck around me and just stood that way while I cried. He died a good twenty years ago and he was the best horse I ever had. I miss him still, both his beauty and his partnership when we rode and competed in games. Most animals are smarter than people give them credit for and if they are treated with kindness, fairness and understanding WILL return your love in very concrete ways.

Wadulisi

February 19 2014 at 10:57 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Eveorah's comment
TRISH

very touching

February 20 2014 at 12:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Charlie

They are slaughtering these mighty animals in the tens of thousands annually for their tasks.
Greed and corruption out of control.

February 19 2014 at 10:34 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
merstockgto

Elephants are very intelligent and sweet animals.

February 19 2014 at 10:01 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
zorro205

elephants should be free no wonder they are under distressed this goes for all animals

February 19 2014 at 8:43 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
sherry4sue

Many more animals give comfort, cats, horses just name a few. ALL give much love and protection for their young. This is not new news!!!

February 19 2014 at 8:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
chefjohnp

Incredibly intelligent animals! They are very maternal and protective. Actually, scientists say that elephants can remember people over 40 years, hence the saying," An elephant never forgets". Wish people acted more like animals.

February 19 2014 at 7:13 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chefjohnp's comment
Aissa2

Thanks, might I add they have more empathy than many, MANY human beings.

February 19 2014 at 7:53 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
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