Asian Elephants Comfort, Console Each Other in Times of Stress

By Michele Berger
Published: February 18, 2014

Elephants, it seems, could use a hug every once in awhile.

These massive mammals are actually big mush balls, according to new research out of Emory University and Think Elephants International. When one Asian elephant gets stressed — by a strange noise or a hidden animal, for example — others come to its aid, responding vocally or through touch to make the animal feel better.

Sometimes the consoler touches the distressed elephant’s face with its trunk. Other times, it puts its trunk in the sad animal’s mouth. It’s the first evidence of this type of comforting behavior in elephants, according to Josh Plotnik, Ph.D., lead researcher and CEO of Think Elephants International.

“Primates are not alone in ‘being intelligent,’” Plotnik told “Animals like elephants, dolphins and corvids [ravens and related bird species] are also important study subjects for understanding how complex cognition evolves.” Primates are the most obvious to look to because they’re so closely related to us, he added. “But what if evolutionarily distant species also possess [a particular cognitive] trait?”

Plotnik and Frans de Waal, Ph.D., director of Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, sought to answer that question. They studied a group of 26 captive Asian elephants in Thailand for a year. They did not intentionally stress the animals but rather waited for spontaneous incidents of distress, something de Waal said happened several times every day. By observing the elephants’ typical reactions to stress, like ears outstretched or an erect tail, they started noticing the consoling behavior.

Just a decade or so ago, de Waal told, the scientific community didn’t think empathy was a characteristic animals shared with us. “That whole picture is, of course, changing,” he said. Most mammals, he added, “have empathic responses in that they are sensitive to the emotions of others and they respond to the emotions of others.”

The researchers said they believe this behavior evolved from a maternal need to care for and protect offspring. From there it spread to other types of important relationships — but only important relationships. “An animal that lives a solitary life wouldn’t need a whole lot of empathy except for its offspring,” de Waal said. “But animals that live in social groups … they live in groups because they survive better within the group than without.”

Plotnik said he believes the research findings could have broad implications for mitigating conflict issues related to the pachyderms. “The more we can learn about how elephants navigate their physical and social worlds — and thus, why they may be attacking humans and eating farmers’ crops — the better equipped we will be to tackle conservation problems,” he said.

The findings were published Tuesday, Feb. 18 online in the journal PeerJ

MORE: Portraits of Animals Before They Go Extinct

A mother koala with her two joeys (Phascolarctos cinereus) at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland, Australia. Conservation Status: Least Concern. Population Trend: Unknown. (Joel Sartore)

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