"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Elephants “console” distressed pals

Feb. 18, 2014
Courtesy of Emory University
and World Science staff

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

“For cen­turies, peo­ple have ob­served that ele­phants seem to be highly in­tel­li­gent and em­path­ic an­i­mals, but as sci­en­tists we need to ac­tu­ally test it,” said lead au­thor Josh­ua Plot­nik, who be­gan the re­search as a grad­u­ate stu­dent of psy­chol­o­gy at Em­o­ry Uni­vers­ity in At­lan­ta.

An elephant "con­soles" an­other, from a video pro­vided by Josh­ua Plot­nik and Think Ele­phants Int­er­na­tion­al.

Con­sola­t­ion be­hav­ior is rare in the an­i­mal king­dom, with ev­i­dence pre­vi­ously limit­ed to the great apes, ca­nines and cer­tain corvids, he said.

“With their strong so­cial bonds, it’s not sur­pris­ing that ele­phants show con­cern for oth­ers,” said co-au­thor Frans de Waal, a psy­chol­o­gist at Em­o­ry. “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 is 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.

While Plot­nik was at Em­o­ry, he and de Waal found ev­i­dence that ele­phants can both rec­og­nize them­selves in a mir­ror – a test of self-awareness passed only by some apes, dol­phins and mag­pies – and problem-solve co­op­er­a­tively.

“Hu­mans are un­ique in many ways, but not in as many ways as we once thought,” Plot­nik said.

The new study fo­cused on a group of 26 cap­tive Asian ele­phants spread over about 30 ac­res at an el­e­phant camp in north­ern Thai­land. For nearly a year, the re­search­ers ob­served and recorded in­ci­dences when an el­e­phant dis­played a stress re­ac­tion, and the re­sponses from oth­er near­by ele­phants.

The in­i­tial stress re­sponses came from ei­ther un­ob­serv­a­ble, or ob­vi­ous, stim­u­li: Events such as a dog walk­ing past, a snake or oth­er po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous an­i­mal rustling the grass, or the pres­ence of anoth­er, un­friendly el­e­phant. “When an el­e­phant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rum­ble, trum­pet and roar to sig­nal its dis­tress,” Plot­nik said.

The study found that near­by ele­phants “af­fil­i­at­ed” sig­nif­i­cantly more with a dis­tressed in­di­vid­ual through di­rect­ed, phys­i­cal con­tact fol­low­ing a stress event than at other times. As a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple, a near­by el­e­phant would go to the side of the dis­tressed an­i­mal and use its trunk to gently tou­ch its face, or put its trunk in the oth­er an­i­mal’s mouth.

The ges­ture of put­ting their trunks in each oth­er’s mouths is al­most like an el­e­phant hand­shake or hug, Plot­nik said. “It’s a very vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion to put your­self in, be­cause you could get bit­ten. It may be send­ing a sig­nal of, ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you.’”

The re­spond­ing ele­phants al­so showed a ten­den­cy to vo­calize. “The vo­cal­iz­a­tion I heard most of­ten fol­low­ing a dis­tress event was a high, chirp­ing sound,” Plot­nik said. “I’ve nev­er heard that vo­cal­iz­a­tion when ele­phants are alone. It may be a sig­nal like, ‘Shshhh, it’s okay,’ the sort of sounds a hu­man adult might make to re­as­sure a ba­by.”

In ad­di­tion, the re­search­ers found that ele­phants of­ten re­sponded to the dis­tress sig­nals of oth­ers by adopt­ing a si­m­i­lar body or emo­tion­al state, a phe­nom­e­non known as “e­mo­tion­al con­ta­gion,” which may be re­lat­ed to em­pa­thy. Groups of near­by ele­phants al­so were found to be more likely to bunch to­geth­er, or make phys­i­cal con­tact with each oth­er.

As an ex­am­ple of emo­tion­al con­ta­gion in hu­mans, Plot­nik de­scribes a cou­ple watch­ing a mov­ie: “When a char­ac­ter on the screen is scared, the hearts of the cou­ple watch­ing might race and they might move a bit clos­er and hold each oth­ers’ hands.”

Dec­ades ago, de Waal was one of the first to pro­vide ev­i­dence of rec­on­cilia­t­ion in non-hu­man pri­ma­tes, show­ing how chim­panzees make up with one anoth­er af­ter a fight. De Waal’s re­search al­so showed con­sola­t­ion be­hav­ior: Af­ter two chim­panzees fight, a third in­di­vid­ual may come over and con­sole the dis­tressed los­er of the bat­tle with an em­brace.

Rec­on­cilia­t­ion be­hav­iors have since been dem­on­strat­ed in many more spe­cies than those that have shown the ca­pa­city for con­sola­t­ion. “One hy­poth­e­sis for why we don’t see con­sola­t­ion as of­ten is that more com­plex cog­ni­tion may un­der­lie it,” Plot­nik said. “Rather than just func­tion­ing as a way to main­tain or re­pair rela­t­ion­ships in a so­cial group, con­sola­t­ion may al­so re­quire em­pa­thy: The abil­ity to put your­self emo­tion­ally in­to some­one else’s shoes.”

Fu­ture stud­ies on ele­phants may be­come more dif­fi­cult, as both Asian and Af­ri­can ele­phants are en­dan­gered. Plot­nik strives to ed­u­cate chil­dren in Thai­land and the Un­ited States about the im­por­tance of con­serving ele­phants and their shrink­ing habi­tats. “I really be­lieve that to save ele­phants and oth­er en­dan­gered spe­cies, we must ed­u­cate chil­dren about them,” he said. 

* * *

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Asian elephants console others who are in distress, using physical touches and vocalizations, finds a study to be published in research journal PeerJ. “For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it,” said lead author Joshua Plotnik, who began the research as a graduate student of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Consolation behavior is rare in the animal kingdom, with empirical evidence previously provided only for the great apes, canines and certain corvids, he said. “With their strong social bonds, it’s not surprising that elephants show concern for others,” said co-author Frans de Waal, a psychologist at Emory. “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 is 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. While Plotnik was at Emory, he and de Waal found evidence that elephants can both recognize themselves in a mirror – a test of self-awareness passed only by some apes, dolphins and magpies – and problem-solve cooperatively. “Humans are unique in many ways, but not in as many ways as we once thought,” Plotnik said. The new study focused on a group of 26 captive Asian elephants spread over about 30 acres at an elephant camp in northern Thailand. For nearly a year, the researchers observed and recorded incidences when an elephant displayed a stress reaction, and the responses from other nearby elephants. The initial stress responses came from either unobservable, or obvious, stimuli: Events such as a dog walking past, a snake or other potentially dangerous animal rustling the grass, or the presence of another, unfriendly elephant. “When an elephant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rumble, trumpet and roar to signal its distress,” Plotnik said. The study found that nearby elephants affiliated significantly more with a distressed individual through directed, physical contact following a stress event than during control periods. As a typical example, a nearby elephant would go to the side of the distressed animal and use its trunk to gently touch its face, or put its trunk in the other animal’s mouth. The gesture of putting their trunks in each other’s mouths is almost like an elephant handshake or hug, Plotnik said. “It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten. It may be sending a signal of, ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you.’“ The responding elephants also showed a tendency to vocalize. “The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound,” Plotnik said. “I’ve never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone. It may be a signal like, ‘Shshhh, it’s okay,’ the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby.” In addition, the researchers found that elephants often responded to the distress signals of others by adopting a similar body or emotional state, a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion,” which may be related to empathy. Groups of nearby elephants also were found to be more likely to bunch together, or make physical contact with each other. As an example of emotional contagion in humans, Plotnik describes a couple watching a movie: “When a character on the screen is scared, the hearts of the couple watching might race and they might move a bit closer and hold each others hands.” Decades ago, de Waal was one of the first to provide evidence of reconciliation in non-human primates, showing how chimpanzees make up with one another after a fight. De Waal’s research also showed consolation behavior: After two chimpanzees fight, a third individual may come over and console the distressed loser of the battle with an embrace. Reconciliation behaviors have since been demonstrated in many more species than those that have shown the capacity for consolation. “One hypothesis for why we don’t see consolation as often is that more complex cognition may underlie it,” Plotnik said. “Rather than just functioning as a way to maintain or repair relationships in a social group, consolation may also require empathy: The ability to put yourself emotionally into someone else’s shoes.” Future studies on elephants may become more difficult, as both Asian and African elephants are endangered. Plotnik strives to educate children in Thailand and the United States about the importance of conserving elephants and their shrinking habitats. “I really believe that to save elephants and other endangered species, we must educate children about them,” he said.