An Asian elephant mother got quite a fright when her baby fell into a pool at the Grand Park Zoo in Seoul, South Korea. The footage recorded by the zoo shows the curious one-year-old elephant getting close to the water’s edge and accidentally tumbling in.
Fortunately, the baby elephant was not actually drowning, says Joyce Poole, a National Geographic explorer and co-founder of ElephantVoices: “When elephants swim, they put their trunk out of the water and continue to breathe.”
In the video, the baby can be seen doing this snorkeling behavior—meaning it was in no imminent danger.
But then why the panic? Even though the family knows the baby can swim, they are still clearly alarmed it has fallen in without meaning to, as evidenced by their quickly flapping ears, says Poole. Even the elephant in the background of the video, separated by a fence, starts rapidly pacing back and forth.
“Elephants are drama queens, especially the females. If anything kind of dramatic happens in the family, it is cause for great excitement,” Poole explains. “It is part of the bonding process.” (Read more about the playful social behavior of elephants.)
The uniquely close family bonds and capacity for empathy of elephants is evident in this display. Only one of the female elephants that helps the baby is its parent, the 13-year-old mother. The other larger, older elephant that springs into action to help, a 36-year-old, is a bonded family member that gets just as worried about the infant as its own mother.
In the wild, the older female elephant would likely be a grandmother or aunt of the baby, but in captivity, unrelated elephants are housed together and still form close bonds. In this video, the two bonded females are clearly close as they coordinate to help the baby out of the water and back to the safety of dry land.
When watching these videos it is always good to remember elephants are complex social creatures with large families in the wild and captivity can be rough on them, Poole says. “When a video like this goes viral, people say how cute it is, but these animals are living very tough lives.”