National Geographic Daily News
A photo of Asian Elephants.

Asian elephants caress each other when stressed.


Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published February 18, 2014

The short list of animals that console stressed-out friends just got longer … and heavier.

Asian elephants, like great apes, dogs, certain corvids (the bird group that includes ravens), and us, have now been shown to recognize when a herd mate is upset and to offer gentle caresses and chirps of sympathy, according to a study published February 18 in the online journal PeerJ.

Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and primatologist Frans de Waal, director of Emory University's Living Links Center, have shown through a controlled study what those who work with elephants have always believed: The animals, in this case captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), offer something akin to humans' sympathetic concern when observing distress in another, including their relatives and friends.

Intimate Gestures

The scientists studied 26 elephants of varying ages at the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Tang district of Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. (Adult male elephants were excluded for safety reasons.)

It would be unethical to set up stressful situations, so they instead waited patiently for such moments to occur naturally.

A stress-inducing situation might be a dog walking by or a snake rustling the grass, or the roar or just the presence of a bull elephant. Sometimes the stressor was unknown. Regardless, scientists know elephant distress when they see it: erect tails and flared ears; vocalizations such as trumpeting, rumbling, or roaring; and sudden defecation and urination tell the story.

Over the course of a year, they spent up to two weeks per month and three hours daily observing the animals.

During these observations, the scientists witnessed bystander elephants—those not directly affected by a stressor—moving to and giving upset elephants physical caresses, mostly inside the mouth (which is kind of like a hug to elephants) and on the genitals. (Also see "African Elephants Understand Human Gestures.")

Bystanders also rumbled and chirped with vocal offerings that suggested reassurance. Sometimes the empathetic animals formed a protective circle around the distressed one.

There was also evidence of "emotional contagion," when herd mates matched the behavior and emotional state of the upset individual. In other words, seeing a "friend" in distress was distressing to the observers. Those animals also consoled one another.

"With their strong bonds, it is not surprising that elephants show concern for others," says de Waal, who describes empathy as a "general mammalian trait."

"They 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."

Still, "I was surprised at how consistent the elephants' consolation behavior was," says Plotnik, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Think Elephants International.

"Whenever an elephant showed signs of distress, a reassuring friend was sure to come console them. The number of times when elephants showed distress without a response from others was very rare."

Empathetic Elephants

Elephants, whose herds are headed by a matriarch and made of generally related females, babies, and immature males, have long been known to bond strongly with their kind.

They celebrate births and mourn the dead. (Watch a video of elephants grieving.) Females will "allomother" (help to raise another's baby) and respond fully and quickly to cries from other mothers' young.

Elephants will also aid a weaker animal—such as by helping the injured along—a sign of being able to consider and empathize with another's perspective.

Still, points out de Waal, "many people are impressed by elephant intelligence, but actual hard data are scarce. We need to study them just as carefully as we do primates, dogs, or corvids." (Read "Elephants Use Their Trunks to Ace Intelligence Tests.")

Keeping the peace is certainly valuable to all animals in a group, so one animal "making up" with another after a conflict makes sense for all. But bystander empathy—just being a concerned friend—takes things to a different emotional level.

The Road to Kindness

Plotnik says not only is this work fascinating from the "what other animals are capable of" perspective, it's also a wonderful example of convergent evolution, which occurs when similar traits or behaviors (in this case empathy/consolation) evolve separately (for example, in apes and elephants) as a result of similar environmental pressures.

"I find this very exciting, because it suggests that the buck does NOT stop with us humans when it comes to smarts!" he says. (Read "Inside Animal Minds" in National Geographic magazine.)

Also, "the more we learn about how elephants think; make decisions; and see, hear, and smell their worlds, the better perspective we will have when trying to find ways to mitigate conservation problems," he says.

In the meantime, it will require more studies to figure out exactly how both givers and receivers benefit from this caring display by elephants. But the nonhuman road to kindness appears to be reaching new lengths.

Jennifer S. Holland has written about animal empathy in her two books Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely Loves. Follow her on Twitter.

Brenda Robinson
Brenda Robinson

This does not surprise me at all. They are such a close and sensitive network.

Marie-Line Sabbagh
Marie-Line Sabbagh

Please read and share! Amazing elephants... and more human than some of us!

Andrea Daniels-Grefelt
Andrea Daniels-Grefelt

These highly intelligent animals are in grave danger from the constant threat of poaching for their ivory. Elephants, whose herds are headed by a matriarch and made of generally related females, babies, and immature males, have long been known to bond strongly with their kind.

We MUST TAKE VIGEROUS INTERNATIONAL ACTION NOW to stop poaching & eliminate the ivory trade. We also must conserve & protect their natural habitat so that these animals can continue to safely exist and thrive in the wild.

Bradley Ball
Bradley Ball

I am not surprised.  I think that this sort of thing is well known.  

Please consider the following, also about animal cognition, with some emphasis on anthropomorphic thinking.

An excerpt from, “Mind of the Raven” by Bernd Heinrich (Harper Perennial: 1999, pp. 193-195):

“At dusk on September 7, 1997, a cougar crept up on Ginny Hannum as she was working at the back of her cabin at the head of Boulder Canyon in Colorado. The cougar crouched low among the rocks, facing her from about twenty feet, and it was ready to pounce. Hannum, at ninety-eight pounds and four-feet-eleven-inches tall, was a well-chosen target.

“Although Mrs. Hannum was unaware of the cougar’s presence, she had become “somewhat annoyed” by a raven “putting on a fuss like crazy.” “I never paid much attention to ravens,” she told me, but this one was so noisy that it was downright irritating.” The noisy raven kept coming closer, having started its commotion twenty minutes earlier from about three hundred yards away. Hannum had never before noticed ravens “cackling like crazy.” Was this raven trying to say something? She started to listen more closely.

“The cougar was ready to make its kill, but the raven was closed and it made a pass over the woman, calling raucously, then flying up above her to some rocks, where she finally saw the crouching cougar. As the cougar glared down with yellow eyes locked onto hers, Hannum quickly backed off and called her three-hundred-pound husband. The surprise attack had been averted. She had been saved. She recounted, “The lion moved his head just a little bit as the raven flew over it. That’s when I saw him. I never would have seen him otherwise. He was going to jump me. That raven saved my life.” The event was declared a miracle in the news.

“A miracle is any even the natural cause of which we do not understand. That provides an adequate number of miracles to some of us—certainly to me. Why did the raven call? To the religious Hannums, it seemed a miracle that a raven would go out of its way to deliberately save a human life. To me, raven behavior is still a miracle, although I have faith that this raven’s behaviors was within the realm of what ravens normally do. They are alert to predators that could potentially provide them with food, as well as to anything strange in their environment. Perhaps the raven had been luring the lion to make a kill, alerting it to a suitable target. If the lion had feasted, so would the raven. That is, both would have benefited, as expected in communication.”

“A similar account with a possible similar scenario appeared in the Anchorage Daily News (December 29, 1998). In this incident George Dalton Jr. came face to face with a grizzly bear on a hunting trip near his village of False Bay. George had wounded a deer and he followed its blood train into the brush where the deer went to die. The bear found the deer and also wanted to lay claim to it. After some tough negotiating with the bear, who was stomping angrily in the ground, George told him (in Tlingit) to please leave him alone. The bear came closer nevertheless. Soon George could smell the bear’s breath, and fearing for his life, then said to it: “OK, you can have him, he’s yours,” while backing away and retreating into the brushy muskeg. George recounts that the bear made a charge: “Ravens were following me and squealing. I thought they were guiding me and telling me that the bear was still following me.”

“My interpretation here is also precisely the opposite. I suspect the ravens were not warning the man, but informing the bear of a potential victim instead. The ravens have a lot to gain if a bear makes a kill. They were probably guiding it to an intended, perhaps prechosen victim. Everything I know about ravens, as well as folklore . . . is congruent with the idea that ravens communicate not only with each other, but also with hunters, to get in on their spoils.

“Whatever else these two incidents illustrate, they show the difficulties of interpreting communication, and how much interpretation can depend on the mind-set of the receiver. The Hannums and George Dalton thought the ravens were communicating with them. Instead, the ravens were probably informing the predators. To make sense of communication, the first relevant questions to ask are: What are the costs and the payoff to the givers and the potential receivers of the signals given?”

Mary Mullen
Mary Mullen

We have to make war on the poachers or we could lose them.. maybe even lose them all

noelle d.
noelle d.

If there is a hidden agenda here( increased tourism) then what would be the problem in that? Yes, most people who have paid attention to any sort of research coming out of Africa and/or Asia in regards to elephant behavior would acknowledge this is not really news.  If another elephant study gets publicity I would ask why anyone would take offense to that.  If another piece of research is published and garners attention which would have the effect, intended or not, of increased revenue dollars from tourism than I would wonder why anyone would feel offended.  Most people who actually understand that the conservation of endangered species in certain parts of the world is contingent on dollars raised from tourism.  Why would anyone come on the National Geographic website and disparage the work that dedicated, and often underpaid,  people are taking part in to save a species being decimated by humans. I hope National Geographic takes some proactive measures and actually moderates the comments so as to not allow those with certain political ideologies come on here to say thing that are argumentative and only meant to prove their non-conservationist perspective.  As one person has already said, yahoo is probably best suited for your need create hateful and false rhetoric.

Didier Newman
Didier Newman

After all, what is the difference between the life that is in a cell, an elephant or a modern homo sapiens? Do not come and vanishes in the same way, an electromagnetic bond and one breath alone? Isn’t life a single indivisible movement, an information flow that builds up and changes from a common ancestor? Or perhaps is there a unique quality in the tree of life, a qualitative leap detached from all evolutionary processes and unrelated to the rest of life? Is it the same leap that the human language makes when differentiating between life  and the rest of the universe? Also between human beings and the rest of animals, between health and disease, between life and death itself? Along these lines, there is a  book, a preview in Just another mind leisure suggestion, far away from dogmas or axioms.

Phillip Lake
Phillip Lake

Why does there always have to be a few HUMANS around to bring down the basis of the things that are worth studying and reading. Go to Yahoo and you can get all the distorted and filth you can find to agree with.

Jeffrey McCollum
Jeffrey McCollum

Elephant nature park is a heavy for profit tourist spot.  hard to take your story seriously as it's all about the bottom line and profit for them

Robert Bohn
Robert Bohn

Good point. The conflict zones created by violent elephant groupings in both Asia and Africa DO need further study. Once we establish empirically that these ignoble beasts are empathetic and do, indeed, enjoy perpetrating violence against humanity in these human/elephant conflicts, then we can truly feel justified in blowing them away with high-caliber rifles, destroying their habitats, and chopping off their tusks to sell to impotent men, piano makers, and those who enjoy statuary that was once living.

Josh Plotnik
Josh Plotnik

This behavior has never been studied, only observed anecdotally. In science, we must conduct empirical studies to support our hypotheses, even when these hypotheses are based on years of anecdotal evidence. Yes, we assume elephants are social and empathetic, but there is little empirical evidence to support the latter. The more research we can do on elephant behavior and intelligence, the better equipped we will be to tackle the growing human/elephant conflict issues in Asia and Africa.

charlie linebarger
charlie linebarger

This is not news to those of us who have paid attention to the news for the past decades. But I admit most folks don't.

John Kneski
John Kneski

Very cute, but also very old news.  This behavior has been studied and reported decades ago.

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

@Jeffrey McCollum Yes, Elephant Nature Park is a hugely profitable venue. I worked for them while Dr Plotnik was doing his field research there. He was not paid and receives no remuneration from them for publishing these findings. In this case, this is actually valid science and not PR.

Jeffrey McCollum
Jeffrey McCollum

@Robert Bohn  They take away the more aggressive males so the tourist don't get hurt.  You know it's all about the dollar or in this case the Baht

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