Elephants, both African and Asian, have long been considered empathetic animals. They help baby elephants stuck in mud holes, use their trunks to lift other elephants that are injured or dying, and even reportedly reassure distressed individual elephants with a gentle touch of their trunk. But it's one thing to witness something that looks like consolation, and another to prove that this is what elephants are doing. Now, scientists have shown that Asian elephants do indeed get distressed when they see others in trouble, and they reach out to console them — just as humans tend to do when we see someone suffering. Elephants, thus, join a short list of other animals, including great apes, canines and some birds, that scientists have shown to reassure others.
The study "is the first to investigate responses to distress by Asian elephants," which "is inherently difficult to assess because one has to wait for opportunities to arise spontaneously," says Shermin de Silva, a behavioral ecologist at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. It would not be ethical to intentionally create stressful situations for the animals as a test, she notes. This is why, until now, researchers have had to rely on well-documented but anecdotal observations of wild and captive elephants to back up claims that they reassure each other.
Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi, in Thailand, and Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, got around this problem by comparing Asian elephants' behaviors during times of stress to periods when little upset them. For one to two weeks every month for nearly a year, Plotnik spent 30 to 180 minutes daily watching and recording 26 captive Asian elephants. The animals ranged in age from 3 to 60 years old and lived within a 30-acre area of Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. Most of the elephants, aside from mother-juvenile pairs, were unrelated and did not live in family groups as wild elephants do. Instead, the park's Mahouts, or keepers, organized them into six groups which they then guided through a daily routine — bathing and feeding them in the morning, and tethering them at night. But during the day, the elephants were left alone to roam and graze at will.