A study led by Dr Joshua Plotnik from Mahidol University and the Think Elephants International has found that Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) console others who are in distress, using physical touches and vocalizations.
“For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it,” said Dr Plotnik, who is the first author of a paper published in the open-access journal PeerJ.
Consolation behavior is rare in the animal kingdom, with empirical evidence previously provided only for the great apes, canines and certain corvids.
“With their strong social bonds, it’s not surprising that elephants show concern for others. This study demonstrates that 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 second author Dr Frans de Waal from Emory University.
For nearly a year, Dr Plotnik and his colleague studied a group of 26 captive Asian elephants at a camp in northern Thailand. They observed and recorded incidences when an elephant displayed a stress reaction, and the responses from other nearby elephants.
The initial stress responses came from either unobservable, or obvious, stimuli: events such as a dog walking past, a snake or other potentially dangerous animal rustling the grass, or the presence of another, unfriendly elephant.
“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 and roar to signal its distress,” Dr Plotnik explained.
The scientists found that nearby elephants affiliated significantly more with a distressed individual through directed, physical contact following a stress event than during control periods. As a typical example, a nearby elephant would go to the side of the distressed animal and use its trunk to gently touch its face, or put its trunk in the other animal’s mouth.
The gesture of putting their trunks in each other’s mouths is almost like an elephant handshake or hug.
“It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten. It may be sending a signal of, ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you,” Dr Plotnik said.
The responding elephants also showed a tendency to vocalize.
“The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound. I’ve never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone. It may be a signal like, ‘Shshhh, it’s okay,’ the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby,” Dr Plotnik said.
In addition, elephants frequently responded to the distress signals of other elephants by adopting a similar body or emotional state, a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion,” which may be related to empathy. Groups of nearby elephants also were more likely to bunch together, or make physical contact with each other.
Reconciliation behaviors have been demonstrated in many more species than those that have shown the capacity for consolation.
“One hypothesis for why we don’t see consolation as often is that more complex cognition may underlie it. Rather than just functioning as a way to maintain or repair relationships in a social group, consolation may also require empathy: The ability to put yourself emotionally into someone else’s shoes,” Dr Plotnik said.
The current elephant study’s limitations include the fact that it was restricted to captive animals.
“This study is a first step,”” Dr Plotnik said.
Plotnik JM, de Waal FB. 2014. Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) reassure others in distress. PeerJ 2: e278; doi: 10.7717/peerj.278