Elephants are capable of empathy, a new study suggests.
The findings, published in the journal PeerJ, describe how the animals reassure one another by touching and talking to each other when in distress. The study involved studying the behavior of 26 captive elephants in Thailand over a period of one year. Since periods of distress can't be planned, 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 showed telltale distress signals such as flared ears, erect tail and trumpeting or roaring. Researchers noticed 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 labeled this an “emotional contagion,” a typical behavior during an empathetic reaction.
Afterward, researchers observed 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.
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"The touching that did happen in the post-distress seemed to happen very soon after the distress event, which tells us that all the touching and vocalizations were most likely related to the distress," Plotnik said.
Plotnik recorded 84 moments of distress. He took note of the time, weather, location and whether other elephants were present. He compared these incidents to similar ones when nothing stressful took place.
Previous studies have confirmed that elephants exercise a level of self-awareness with the ability to recognize their own reflection. This, scientists say, is a prerequisite for empathy. The latest findings are the first to confirm the animals can feel for one another.
Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says the study “provides a very interesting first exploration” into the “post-distress behavior of elephants.” Shannon adds that 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.”
Plotnik says the findings may help with conservation efforts in the 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.”