Empathetic elephants

Source: nationalgeographic.com
Yet another species can now be added to the list of animals that demonstrate empathy and offer each other solace. Research in Thailand has shown that elephants are aware of stress in another member of the herd, and that they also know how to reassure that individual.
This capacity has already been demonstrated in apes, dogs, and birds of the crow family. People who work with elephants might not see this as new knowledge, yet this is the first time scientific research has been conducted on elephants’ capacity for empathy.

The subjects of this study were 26 female Asian elephants, of various ages, in the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. The investigators waited for stressful situations to present themselves, rather than creating external stressors. Natural stressors could be occurrences such as a passing dog, a snake rustling in the grass, or the distant call of a bull elephant. Even when the stressor could not be detected, the stress reaction was obvious: erect tails, flared ears and various vocalisations. During their observation period, researchers saw that elephants near the stressed individual but not stressed themselves reassured their troubled herd mate. The soothing gestures included touching with the trunk, sometimes inserting the trunk in the other’s mouth — the elephant equivalent of a hug. The herd members around the stressed elephant made soft chirping sounds, and would sometimes surround the animal in a protective circle.

Frans de Waal, one of the researchers, says he is not surprised to see this behaviour in elephants, as this species forms very strong relationships. Furthermore, the scientist believes that empathy is a general characteristic of mammals. He points out that many people are impressed with elephants’ intelligence, but that hard evidence is in short supply. De Waal feels that much more research should be conducted on elephants: research just as thorough as that done on primates, dogs, and members of the crow family.