Elephants have been shown to be some of the brainiest land animals, able to solve puzzles and understand human directions without any prior training. In addition to being very intelligent they are also very emotional and have shown to be very sensitive to traumatic events within their groups. A new study has shown that elephants are highly empathetic and will actively "console" one another in times of distress. The study was performed by Joshua Plotnik and Frans de Waal and was published in PeerJ.
The fact that elephants are empathetic shouldn’t be too surprising - they are highly social and intelligent animals, meaning that respect and camaraderie is a necessary part of their family groups being successful. However, most animals do not try to offer emotional support in troubling times. It has only been observed before in other intelligent animals like apes, dogs, and corvids. While elephants consoling one another isn’t completely unheard of, most of the evidence is anecdotal and the topic has never been thoroughly studied before this.
The research was performed at an elephant reserve in Thailand run by Think Elephants International. During the day, the animals were given plenty of free time to roam and act naturally, which was needed for the study. With very few exceptions, the elephants were all unrelated and did not have familial bonds to begin with. The researchers monitored them and made note of any stressful occurrences. They did not create stressful situations for the elephants, but waited patiently for ones that came about naturally. Not only was this a more ethical way to treat the animals, but allowed the researchers to learn what causes distress in elephants as well as how it is handled.
The cause of the stress varied, but was usually because of the presence of an unwelcome animal, ranging from unfamiliar elephants down to a snake slithering through the grass. The responses to these stimuli were fairly typical of what the researchers expected: scared elephants will stomp, flap their ears, or make loud noises. What had to be determined, however, was how others in the group responded to their frightened friend.
The video shows Jokia, an adult female who felt threatened by the roar of a bull elephant at a different reserve. She became visibly agitated, raising her tail and twitching her ears. In swooped Mae Perm, another adult female, who either did not hear the bull or was not agitated by it, but saw Jokia in a state of distress. Despite not being frightened herself, Mae Perm began to display some of the same mannerisms. Eventually, Mae Perm puts her trunk into Jokia’s mouth as a sign of comfort. Moments later, a settled Jokia reciprocates.
This empathetic response is known as “emotional contagion” and is the same reason that yawns can be contagious and different movies or songs can impact our emotions. Researchers are not yet sure about the evolutionary benefit of this interaction and which of the animals - the upset individual or those offering support - benefit most.