Elephants have long had a reputation for good memories. Now, according to a new study from Emory University and Think Elephants International, the giant animals are also pretty good when it comes to empathy.
The researchers observed 26 elephants held in an elephant camp in northern Thailand for over a year. They didn't go out of their way to stress out the elephants but rather waited for something stressful to naturally occur (a surprising sound, for example) and then observed what happened next.
In short, the elephants were more likely to commiserate during stressful times than during the study's control periods.
Researchers found that elephants are able to sense when other elephants are stressed and will often comfort them with physical contact or a vocal response. The physical contact sometimes involves a "trunk touch," which puts the creature in a vulnerable position.
Lead researcher Joshua Plotnik of Emory University told Discovery News that the physical gestures "may be sending a signal of 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you.'"
As for the vocal calls, Plotnik told Discovery, "I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone." He continued, "It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's OK,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."
Signs of a distressed elephant include outstretched ears or an erect tail, according to Weather.com. Plotnik told the website that primates don't have a monopoly on smarts.
"Animals like elephants, dolphins and corvids [ravens and related bird species] are also important study subjects for understanding how complex cognition evolves,” he said.
Co-author Frans de Waal was quoted as saying, "With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others. 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."
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Related: How the U.S. is trying to help endangered elephants.