Elephants Show Empathy

With chirps and "hugs"

Feb 18, 2014
Outside Magazine

We’ve always known that elephants are intelligent creatures, but a new study to be published in the open-access journal PeerJ found that Asian elephants show empathy in times of stress. When one elephant in the herd appears to be distressed, they console each other physically and vocally, Phys.org reports.

The study, which followed 26 captive Asian elephants at an elephant camp in northern Thailand, is the first empirical evidence of empathy in elephants, says Joshua Plotnik, the study's lead author. Previously, this kind of behavior had been scientifically recorded only in great apes, canines, and certain corvids. 

"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," says co-author Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology and director of Living Links at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center. "This study demonstrates that elephants 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."

When Elephant A is upset, Elephant B might use its trunk to brush the side of the A's face or put its trunk in A's mouth—an elephant’s version of a hug, researchers say. The vocalization often heard is a high chirping.

“It may be a signal like, 'Shhh, it's okay,'” Plotnik says. “The sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby.”

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