[ Watch the Video: What Do Elephants And Humans Have In Common? ]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
People often reflexively put their arm around someone else in distress and a new study from researchers at Emory University in the journal PeerJ has found that elephants also console each other in times of need.
Study author Joshua Plotnik, a graduate student at Emory, said the physical touches and vocalizations he and his co-author recorded are the first bits of evidence that show elephants try to comfort teach other.
“For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it,” he said.
In addition to humans, this type of consolation has only been seen in great apes, canines and some types of birds.
“With their strong social bonds, it’s not surprising that elephants show concern for others,” said study co-author Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology. “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.”
[ Watch the Video: Asian Elephants Reassure Others in Distress ]
In the study, the researchers focused on a group of 26 captive Asian elephants spread over about 30 acres at an elephant preserve in northern Thailand. For almost a year, the scientists viewed and recorded situations when an elephant presented a stress reaction, and the reactions from other nearby elephants. The primary stress responses originated from either unobservable or noticeable stimuli, such as a dangerous animal rustling in the grass or the presence of a rival 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,” Plotnik said.
The study team discovered that elephants in close proximity affiliated much more with a troubled individual after it had a stress event than during uneventful control periods. For instance, an elephant would go alongside the distressed animal and use its trunk to carefully touch its face or put its trunk in the other animal’s mouth, the equivalent of an elephant handshake or hug.
“It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten,” Plotnik said. “It may be sending a signal of, ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you.'”
Sympathizing elephants also used vocalizations as a way to extend emotional help to their stressed colleagues.
“The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound,” Plotnik said. “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.”
The researchers also found that elephants often responded to the signals of other elephants by adopting a similar body or emotional state – something known as an “emotional contagion” – which may be a sign of empathy.
The researchers noted that their study was limited by the fact that it was restricted to captive animals.
“This study is a first step,” Plotnik said. “I would like to see this consolation capacity demonstrated in wild populations as well.”