Asian elephants display empathy

New scientific testing suggests that Asian elephants are able to express empathy for other elephants. Though there has been much anecdotal evidence for reassuring and empathetic behavior among elephants, a new study is the first to establish scientific evidence to that effect. Science magazine reported on these findings, which further underscore “the complex cognitive abilities of elephants.” Previously, this kind of activity had only been observed in primates, canines and certain members of the crow family.

The research was spearheaded by Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist working at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi Campus, in Thailand. His partner was Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. It is difficult to perform behavioral studies among wild animal populations due to the large amount of time and effort required. The environment is not a controlled laboratory setting, and there are ethical problems associated with deliberately inducing stress in animals, so scientists have to wait for opportunities to make their observations.

According to the report in Science, Plotnik and de Waal, “got around this problem by comparing Asian elephants’ behaviors during times of stress to periods when little upset them.” For around half of a year — one to two weeks per month for 12 months — Plotnik observed the animals over a period of 30 to 180 minutes per day. The population under observation was captive, residing in a protected Elephant Nature Park in the northern part of Thailand.

When one of the elephants became distressed, other elephants began to mirror the behavior of the afflicted individual. Plotnik notes that this shows they are “adopting the same emotion, just as we do when watching a scary movie together. If an actor is frightened, our hearts race, and we reach for each others’ hands.” Elephants would place their trunks in other elephants’ mouths to show concern and to show they were unthreatening. They would also touch each other’s faces and genitals, as shown in a video embedded on the site Live Science. These reactions occurred very soon after one individual indicated distress, which indicates that they are likely connected.

Overall, Plotnik and his team recorded 84 incidents of stress, including details about location, weather and other factors that might influence their interpretations of the events. Their findings indicated that “the elephants’ emotional contagion [empathy] and distinctive, reassuring behaviors happened almost exclusive in response to some stressful trigger” (Science Magazine). A professor at the University of Colorado, Marc Bekoff, responded to the study positively: “I think it is a very important study and a very interesting study,” but he added that “Captive studies may undercut these animals, may underestimate what they are doing” (Christian Science Monitor). He encouraged the scientific community to pursue this line of research among wild populations and larger groups of elephants to further solidify the findings.

Besides the insight into elephant psychology, this research might also have implications for educating people and supporting conservation efforts. Wildlife habitats, including those for elephants, are rapidly disappearing, which is putting elephants into conflict with humans over the use of land and resources. Plotnik told the Christian Science Monitor that it is vitally important that people understand elephant and other animal behavior in order to make judicious decisions about dealing with them.