By Monte Morin
When life gets stressful, Asian elephants help their pals feel better by trumpeting sympathetic noises and using their trunks to touch their friend's -- um -- private parts, according to new research.
In a study published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, animal behaviorists observed 26 captive elephants in a sanctuary in northern Thailand. The researchers said they recorded a number of elephant behaviors that they concluded were specifically intended to comfort distressed herd members.
The behaviors included touching the distressed elephant's genitals with their trunks, putting their trunks in the distressed elephant's mouth, or making a high-pitched "chirping" noise.
"Elephants do a lot of touching of others with their trunks. Genital touching is a way for elephants to identify others, and in this case, it may also be a way for the elephants to identify the behavioral state of the others," said co-author Joshua Plotnik, a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and chief executive of the nonprofit Think Elephants International.
"I think the genital touching, in combination with other touches, specifically in this context, serves to reassure the other elephant," Plotnik said. "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.' "
Consoling behaviors are rare in the animal kingdom. Humans, great apes, dogs and some birds are known to attend to peers in distress, scientists say.
"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," said co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta.
"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," De Waal said.
The bummer events that got the study's pachyderms to fretting included dogs walking past, snakes or other creepy amimals rustling in the grass, or the presence of an 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 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."
Although elephants have been known to help others or to display empathy in the wild, the authors said that evidence has only been anecdotal up until now.
The elephants observed were all between 3 and 60 years old, and adult male elephants were excluded from the sample. In the wild, elephant family groups consist of related adult females and their immature offspring. Male elephants leave their family groups when they reach sexual maturity and either roam solo or form small bachelor herds.
Researchers observed the elephants at regular periods from April 2008 to February 2009.
Plotnik said he hoped the study's findings would help conservation efforts in Asia, where elephants have been getting some bad press.
"In Asia, there are serious problems with human and elephant conflict, and we really don't understand why elephants are attacking people and raiding crops," Plotnik said. "Although we know that elephant habitat is shrinking rapidly, a better understanding of elephant behavior could really help in developing comprehensive conservation management protocols that acknowledge the elephants' perspective."
Think Elephants International is focused on helping humans and elephants coexist, Plotnik said.
"We are working in Thailand to teach young people about elephants and conservation by engaging them directly in scientific research," he said. "If we can change the way in which young people think about elephants, hopefully elephants and other endangered species will still be around for future generations." Video.