Elephants Console Each Other and Show Empathy Like Humans


Scientists have known for a long time that elephants are self-aware and highly intelligent. Now, a new study has shown that elephants also console each other and show empathy to other elephants who are in distress. The behavior is similar to how humans and chimps reach out to comfort one another with a hug or a kind word. The elephants in the study used both physical gestures and verbalizations to express their sympathy and comfort to others in their herd. The study was published earlier this week in the science journal Peer J.

In order to observe and record the behaviors, researchers had to wait until a stressful situation happened to the elephant herd. Some examples of situations that would cause an elephant to be distressed are seeing a snake or other animal that could cause fear; loud noises, the presence of an unfriendly or unknown elephant, or the death of another herd elephant.

There are several ways in which the elephants’ expression of comfort differs from humans’ empathetic gestures, and one example in particular stands out. Physical expressions of comfort include caressing each other inside of the mouth and, surprisingly, on the genital region. The inner-mouth caress is similar to a human hug.

Verbal noises include chirping, trumpeting and rumbling sounds. Perhaps the most touching physical gesture is the formation of a circle of elephants around the animal in distress, as if to protect it from further upset. The researchers were struck by how extremely consistent these expressions were during the course of the study. “The consistency with which elephants responded to a friend in distress was quite remarkable,” said Joshua Plotnik, one of the co-authors of the study. “Rarely did an elephant give a distress call without a response from a friend or group member nearby,” he explained.

Elephants have long been observed touching each other’s genitals, and this is primarily used as a way of identification. However, the behavior has now been positively linked to consoling each other in times of stress as well as for general recognition.

The discovery that elephants console each other and show empathy like humans is significant, because the practice is considered to be one of the more rare behaviors observed in the animal kingdom. Other than humans, only a limited species of dogs, a few birds and the great apes are known to participate in comforting one another during times of upset.

While the discovery is an exciting one, it has not left researchers surprised. One of the study’s co-authors, Frans de Waal, said he would have expected elephants to show empathy for other elephants because the animals are known to have very strong social bonds.

The fact that elephants console each other and show empathy like humans may not surprise most scientists who work with this particular animal, but the news may come as a pleasant shock to animal lovers who are not in the scientific community. Researchers involved in the study say they are keen on uncovering more information to assist them in paving the way for humans and elephants to co-exist more peacefully in East Asia.

By: Rebecca Savastio


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