In a study published on PeerJ, authors Joshua M. Plotnik and Frans de Waal cover an interesting feature seen in elephant herds. Asian elephants, great apes, dogs, some corvid birds, and of course, humans, are now on the same list. The study describes those species that have been observed to offer other group members condolences of affection. This particular behavior may be the proof researchers need to establish the connection between human and elephant emotions.
In this study, elephants were observed giving consolation to other herd members seen in distress. These elephants were able to show a level of empathy that is not commonly seen in the animal kingdom, outside of humans and other primates, dogs, and some birds. The elephants under this study were the Asian elephants of Thailand. Verbal communication and physical contact were seen much more often following a distressing event than in control periods. There was also what they term “emotional contagion” that was observed, meaning, when one elephant was upset, others became upset as well.
One of the troubles with the study involved distinguishing the “emotional contagion” from a response to an elephant herd-mate, and a response to the distressing event itself.
Emotion in elephants has been studied by researchers for many decades. National Geographic captures elephant mourning long after the death of a herd member that was known as the matriarch. The groups of elephants are observed turning over the bone remains of the elephant; they turn their backs to the remains and are observed giving affection or condolence to one another. They have also been observed covering the remains with leaves and twigs. They fondle the bones in “thoughtful contemplation” and will eventually hide the bones under bushes , allegedly to throw off predators. Elephants are known to have a close-knit group, and they, on average, will live approximately 70 years. The connection elephants maintain in this study, proves humans may not be the only animal species on Earth to understand death. Their understanding of death is described to be incredibly advanced, while many other animal species will leave a fallen family member behind, never observed to mourn or present empathy.
Another animal, known as “man’s best friend,” is often cited in research. Teresa Romero of the University of Tokyo remarks on how dogs are “emotionally connected” to people. She furthers the notion that animals have the capacity to empathize with others. The study, however, focuses on the contagious effect of yawning. They reported the dogs in the study were observed yawning much more frequently after their master was observed yawning. This finding alone might not prove an emotional connection between dog and owner. However, a study conducted at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, by Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi, found that people observing a loved one yawning would incite a yawning response more so than simply observing a stranger yawn, thus establishing an emotional connection between dog and human.
Though the studies are not the first documentation of animal empathy or devotion. Many years ago, there was a dog named Bella. She reportedly wandered into an elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, and became inseparable from the elephant she became close to. At one point, several years down the road, Bella suffered a spinal cord injury, and spent three weeks in the office, laying motionless. For those three weeks, Tarra, her elephant counterpart, stood at the edge of the property beneath the balcony, awaiting a safe return of her companion. Though not all stories are as unique as this, an elephant’s capacity to care shows how animals possess emotional sophistication that might have been previously unrealized. Researchers believe the proof that a fundamental connection, or similarity, may exist between human and elephant emotions, is now evident.
The elephants in mourning:
The Elephant and dog connection:
By Lindsey Alexander