Read Caption

Asian elephants caress each other when stressed.


Surprise: Elephants Comfort Upset Friends

Asian elephants recognize distress and offer a helping trunk, study says.

The short list of animals that console stressed-out friends just got longer … and heavier.

Asian elephants, like great apes, dogs, certain corvids (the bird group that includes ravens), and us, have now been shown to recognize when a herd mate is upset and to offer gentle caresses and chirps of sympathy, according to a study published February 18 in the online journal PeerJ.

Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and primatologist Frans de Waal, director of Emory University's Living Links Center, have shown through a controlled study what those who work with elephants have always believed: The animals, in this case captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), offer something akin to humans' sympathetic concern when observing distress in another, including their relatives and friends.

Intimate Gestures

The scientists studied 26 elephants of varying ages at the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Tang district of Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. (Adult male elephants were excluded for safety reasons.)

It would be unethical to set up stressful situations, so they instead waited patiently for such moments to occur naturally.

A stress-inducing situation might be a dog walking by or a snake rustling the grass, or the roar or just the presence of a bull elephant. Sometimes the stressor was unknown. Regardless, scientists know elephant distress when they see it: erect tails and flared ears; vocalizations such as trumpeting, rumbling, or roaring; and sudden defecation and urination tell the story.

Over the course of a year, they spent up to two weeks per month and three hours daily observing the animals.

During these observations, the scientists witnessed bystander elephants—those not directly affected by a stressor—moving to and giving upset elephants physical caresses, mostly inside the mouth (which is kind of like a hug to elephants) and on the genitals. (Also see "African Elephants Understand Human Gestures.")

Bystanders also rumbled and chirped with vocal offerings that suggested reassurance. Sometimes the empathetic animals formed a protective circle around the distressed one.

There was also evidence of "emotional contagion," when herd mates matched the behavior and emotional state of the upset individual. In other words, seeing a "friend" in distress was distressing to the observers. Those animals also consoled one another.

"With their strong bonds, it is not surprising that elephants show concern for others," says de Waal, who describes empathy as a "general mammalian trait."

"They 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."

Still, "I was surprised at how consistent the elephants' consolation behavior was," says Plotnik, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Think Elephants International.

"Whenever an elephant showed signs of distress, a reassuring friend was sure to come console them. The number of times when elephants showed distress without a response from others was very rare."

Empathetic Elephants

Elephants, whose herds are headed by a matriarch and made of generally related females, babies, and immature males, have long been known to bond strongly with their kind.

They celebrate births and mourn the dead. (Watch a video of elephants grieving.) Females will "allomother" (help to raise another's baby) and respond fully and quickly to cries from other mothers' young.

Elephants will also aid a weaker animal—such as by helping the injured along—a sign of being able to consider and empathize with another's perspective.

Still, points out de Waal, "many people are impressed by elephant intelligence, but actual hard data are scarce. We need to study them just as carefully as we do primates, dogs, or corvids." (Read "Elephants Use Their Trunks to Ace Intelligence Tests.")

Keeping the peace is certainly valuable to all animals in a group, so one animal "making up" with another after a conflict makes sense for all. But bystander empathy—just being a concerned friend—takes things to a different emotional level.

The Road to Kindness

Plotnik says not only is this work fascinating from the "what other animals are capable of" perspective, it's also a wonderful example of convergent evolution, which occurs when similar traits or behaviors (in this case empathy/consolation) evolve separately (for example, in apes and elephants) as a result of similar environmental pressures.

"I find this very exciting, because it suggests that the buck does NOT stop with us humans when it comes to smarts!" he says. (Read "Inside Animal Minds" in National Geographic magazine.)

Also, "the more we learn about how elephants think; make decisions; and see, hear, and smell their worlds, the better perspective we will have when trying to find ways to mitigate conservation problems," he says.

In the meantime, it will require more studies to figure out exactly how both givers and receivers benefit from this caring display by elephants. But the nonhuman road to kindness appears to be reaching new lengths.

Jennifer S. Holland has written about animal empathy in her two books Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely Loves. Follow her on Twitter.