Elephants reassure others in distress

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Feb. 18, 2014

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Elephants get distressed when they see others in distress, reaching out to calm them down. Photo by Elise Gilchrist, Think Elephants International.

Asian elephants console others who are in distress, using physical touches and vocalizations, finds a study to be published in the journal PeerJ.

The findings are the first empirical evidence of consolation in elephants, says lead author Joshua Plotnik, who began the research as a graduate student of psychology at Emory University. “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 says.

Consolation behavior is rare in the animal kingdom, with empirical evidence previously provided only for the great apes, canines and certain corvids.

“With their strong social bonds, it’s not surprising that elephants show concern for others,” says co-author Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology and director of Living Links at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “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.”

Plotnik received his PhD from Emory in 2010 and is currently a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and CEO of Think Elephants International, a non-profit focused on education and conservation. His main research interest is convergent cognitive evolution: The independent evolution of similar features of intelligence in species of different lineages.

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