Asian elephants are capable of empathy, a new study suggests. They offer a high-pitched chirp and touch of their trunk to calm a distressed friend.
This most recent study, published in the journal PeerJ, explain how the animals comfort one another by touching and talking to each other when in distress. The study involved analyzing the behavior of 26 captive Asian elephants at a 30-acres camp in Thailand over a period of one year. Researchers spent 30 to 180 minutes each day watching and recording the elephants' behavior.
When stressful periods arose -such as a dog walking nearby, a snake rustling in the grass, or the presence of an unfriendly elephant - elephants demonstrate their unease by projecting their ears out, raising their tail tall or curling it outwards, and emitting a low-decibel "rumble or roar."
Researchers observed that nearby elephants responded by "adopting the same emotion," Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, said, "just as we do when watching a scary movie together. If an actor is frightened, our hearts race, and we reach for each other's hands." Researchers called this an "emotional contagion," a typical behavior during an empathetic reaction.
Then, the researchers notice the elephants move toward each other and touch their face or genitals and put their trunks in each other's mouths and chirp, Plotnik told LiveScience.
"The touching that did happen in the post-distress seemed to happean very soon after the distress event, which tells us that all the touching and vocalizations were most likely related to the distress," Plotnik said.
Scientists have long known about elephants' thoughtful ways; this study is unique in that it is the first empirical evidence of such behavior, which the researchers observed, tracked, and statistically analyzed consoling behaviors.
Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said:
The new research "provides a very interesting first exploration" into the "post-distress behavior of elephants."
The findings are "intriguing because they parallel what has been observed in captive and wild non-human primates, further underlining the complex cognitive abilities of elephants," Shannon added.
Plotnik says the proliferation of the findings could aid conservation efforts in local region.
"In Asia, we are faced with large-scale human/elephant conflict issues, and real frustration with the lack of understanding of how and why elephants are attacking people and raiding crops," Plotnik told Wired Magazine.
"Although we know that loss of natural habitat is a real instigator of these problems, a better understanding of elephant physical and social intelligence could really help us develop comprehensive conservation protocols that take the elephants' perspective into account," Plotnik added.