People often reflexively put their arm around someone else in distress and a new study from researchers at Emory University in the journal PeerJ
has found that elephants also console each other in times of need.
Study author Joshua Plotnik
, a graduate student at Emory, said the physical touches and vocalizations he and his co-author recorded are the first bits of evidence that show elephants try to comfort teach other.
"For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic
animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it," he said.
In addition to humans, this type of consolation has only been seen in great apes, canines and some types of birds.
"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," said study co-author Frans de Waal
, an Emory professor
of psychology. "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."
In the study, the researchers focused on a group of 26 captive Asian elephants spread over about 30 acres at an elephant preserve in northern Thailand. For almost a year, the scientists viewed and recorded situations when an elephant presented a stress reaction, and the reactions from other nearby elephants. The primary stress responses originated from either unobservable or noticeable stimuli, such as a dangerous animal rustling in the grass or the presence of a rival elephant.