Elephants Feel Empathy, Console One Another

According to a new study, elephants can feel empathy and even comfort one another in times of stress.
Posted at 3:32 PM, Feb 18, 2014

If you think elephants are just gigantic, scary animals, this new study might make you think differently.

Researchers in Thailand found that when an Asian elephant can tell that another is in distress, it reassures its stressed-out friend by touching and "talking" to it — just like a human would. (Via Wikimedia Commons / Alan Levi)

The study's lead author told LiveScience"There is 50 years of behavioral observational research out of Africa that elephants are highly social, they have empathy. ... We were able, for the first time, to really confirm this through our work."

The study looked at 26 captive elephants in Thailand over the course of one year. And, because stressful situations can't be staged exactly, researchers spent between 30 and 180 minutes a day watching the elephants' behavior. (Via PeerJ)

When the occasional stressful situation would arise, the scientists noticed elephants showed clear signs of distress, such as flaring their ears and roaring. (Via National Geographic)

According to International Business Times, once elephants nearby caught wind of their companions' anxiety, the observers saw they would adopt that same emotion, just like humans do when we're watching an actor in a movie get into a scary situation.

This reaction is known as an "emotional contagion," and it's typical to experience it during an empathetic reaction.

But here's the cutest part. After mimicking their fear, researchers saw the elephants move closer to one another, caress one another with their trunks and chirp reassuringly. (Via Oregon Zoo)

The lead author says he's never heard an elephant make that sound when he's alone. He told Discovery News, "It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's okay,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."

This kind of behavior has been seen in other animals as well. 

Chimpanzees have been known to reassure others by putting their hands in each other's mouths. Not quite as cute or clean, but we'll take it. (Via Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest)

Scientists not involved in the study say the findings are interesting and could help conservation efforts. But because only captive elephants were used in the research, the results might not be representative of all elephants.