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.
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.”