Walk a mile — in Elephant shoes
Many animals seem capable of reconciliation, where participants resolve fights, and scientists theorize this peace-making helps maintain stable communities. Consolation behavior, where one individual comforts or supports another, is different. The human ability to recognize, empathize, and appropriately respond to the emotions of others has rarely been observed elsewhere in nature. The only other animals observed consoling distressed companions are great apes, canines, certain bird species and potentially, elephants.
Although notoriously difficult to design, acclaimed animal behavior scientists Joshua Plotnik and Frans de Waal¹ completed the first systematic study of elephant consolation in 2014. Because it is unethical to intentionally create and execute stress-inducing situations, Plotnik and de Waal gathered observational data from the captive population in Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park. They discovered that the Asian elephants there often responded to distressed companions with consoling behavior. The correlation was so reliable that Plotnik told National Geographic, “the number of times when elephants showed distress without a response from others was very rare.”²
Plotnik and de Waal noted that upset elephants reacted in consistently distinct ways — ears pushed forward and tail raised, accompanied by anxious rumbling — but they rarely sought reassurance. Most often a bystander would notice these distressed behaviors and approach their stressed partner, caressing them with a trunk and chirping reassuringly. The bystanders also frequently imitated and reflected signs of stress, a behavior called emotional contagion. These behaviors imply that elephants are able to recognize distress in one another, and perhaps understand and share those feelings — empathize, that is — with each other. The study shows at the very least that elephants often console one another; however, it is not clear whether or not empathy is involved in or intrinsic to consolation behavior (this topic is widely debated, and many scientists³ and conservationists believe animals are naturally empathetic — you can read more about elephants and empathy in an upcoming article by ELP writer, Shimon Shuchat).
Despite the limitations of Plotnik and de Waal’s study, which is based solely on their observations of captive Asian elephants, the results are astonishing, implying at the very least that elephants have complex emotions and suggesting that elephants, like humans, empathize with others. The authors are also quick to point out that many theories based on captive populations are later confirmed in the wild, a pattern they believe will hold true for their conclusion. Already years of anecdotal observations support Plotnik and de Waal’s findings. Consolation is crucial to the formation of human relationships; perhaps the same connection applies to elephants as well.
¹Plotnik, Joshua M., and Frans BM de Waal. “Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) reassure others in distress.” PeerJ 2 (2014): e278.
²Holland, Jennifer S. “Surprise: Elephants Comfort Upset Friends,” National Geographic, February 18, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140218-asian-elephants-empathy-animals-science-behavior/.
³Simon Worrall, “Yes, Animals Think and Feel. Here’s How we Know,” interview with author of Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina. National Geographic, July 15, 2015, Book Talk. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150714-animal-dog-thinking-feelings-brain-science/