Asian elephants show remarkable empathy, say scientists

Asian elephants will console distressed peers through touching and 'talking,' say researchers, suggesting that these animals are capable of empathy.

Phil Noble/Reuters
A three day old baby male Asian Elephant walks with his mother in their enclosure at Chester Zoo in Chester, northern England November 28, 2012.

Asian elephants reassure other distressed elephants by touching them and "talking" to them, which suggests they are capable of empathy and reassurance, according to new research.

"There is 50 years of behavioral observational research out of Africa that elephants are highly social, they have empathy and they can think about their social relationships and make specific social decisions that impact themselves and others," said study researcher Josh Plotnik, of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. "We were able, for the first time, to really confirm this through our work in Thailand."

The study was conducted in Thailand, and the researchers observed the behavior of 26 elephants in captivity over the course of a year.

The researchers found that when "an elephant would show distress, the other elephants would adopt that same state — and we call that "emotional contagion" — which is something you typically see in an empathic reaction," Plotnik said.

Then, the elephants would move toward each other, touch each other's faces and genitals, and put their trunks in each other's mouths and chirp, he said. [Video: Asian Elephants Console the Distressed]

"The touching that did happen in the post-distress seemed to happen very soon after the distress event, which tells us that all the touching and vocalizations were most likely related to the distress," Plotnik said.

The behavior of the elephants in the study is similar to that of chimpanzees, which reassure each other by putting their hands in each other's mouths, he said.

"I think it is a very important study and a very interesting study," said Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who was not involved in the study.

However, because the study only looked at elephants in captivity, the findings might not be representative of all elephants, Bekoff said.

"Captive studies may undercut these animals, may underestimate what they are doing," because studies of animals in captivity can fail to fully replicate the social groups and relationships that occur in the wild, he told Live Science.

Teaching people about elephants' intelligence and social qualities is important to conservation efforts, said Plotnik, who is also the founder and CEO of nonprofit organization Think Elephants International, which advocates for elephant conservation.

But there are also practical implications of the new research for local communities in Asia that deal with elephants on a daily basis, he said.

"There is a lot of frustration, especially in Asia," where a huge decrease in elephant habitat has brought the animals into much conflict with people. For instance, elephants sometimes raid local crops, Plotnik said.

Therefore, it's important for the local people to better understand elephants, he said.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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