Asian elephants do console one another in distress
Posted on Feb 18 2014 | IANS
New York, Feb 18 : Asian elephants use physical touch and vocal sound to console others who are in distress, says a study.
They frequently respond to distress signals of other elephants by adopting a similar body or emotional state - a phenomenon known as 'emotional contagion'.
"The findings are the first empirical evidence of consolation in elephants," said author Joshua Plotnik from Emory University in Georgia, US.
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 added.
"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," added 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.
The researchers focused on a group of 26 captive Asian elephants spread over about 30 acres at an elephant camp in northern Thailand.
For nearly a year, the researchers observed and recorded incidences when an elephant displayed a stress reaction, and the responses from other nearby elephants.
The initial stress responses came from either unobservable, or obvious, stimuli - Events such as a dog walking past, a snake or other potentially dangerous animal rustling the grass, or the presence of another, unfriendly elephant.
"When an elephant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rumble, trumpet and roar to signal its distress," added Plotnik.
Nearby elephants affiliated significantly more with a distressed individual through directed, physical contact following a stress event than during control periods.
The gesture of putting their trunks in each other's mouths is almost like an elephant handshake or hug.
The responding elephants also showed a tendency to vocalise.
"The vocalisation I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound," explained Plotnik.
It may be a signal like, 'shshhh, it's okay' - the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby, said the research published in the open access journal PeerJ.