Elephants Give a Helping Trunk
Elephants are known to be highly social and intelligent. Now there is evidence that they engage in something that looks very much like a group hug when a fellow elephant is in distress.
Joshua Plotnik, who leads a conservation and education group called Think Elephants, and teaches conservation at Mahidol University in Thailand, studied elephants at a park in Chiang Rai Province in Thailand, to look for consolation behavior.
As defined by Frans de Waal, Dr. Plotnik’s Ph.D. adviser at Emory University, consolation behavior involves bystanders responding in a reassuring way to an animal that is in emotional distress because of a conflict with another member of the group.
“We’re pretty confident it’s relatively rare” in animals, Dr. Plotnik said in an interview. He said there was good evidence for the behavior in apes, wolves and some birds. And he said there had been anecdotal reports of such behavior in dolphins and elephants.
Elephants clearly have strong emotional connections to other elephants and are highly intelligent, so it made sense to think that they might console one another. To find out, Dr. Plotnik observed 26 elephants in six groups at a managed park.
When one elephant was disturbed, Dr. Plotnik said, other elephants — bystanders — gathered around. They made chirping sounds and touched the distressed elephant, trunk to mouth or trunk to genitals, which are reassuring gestures, for elephants.
Dr. Plotnik said that since he couldn’t always observe the original source of the distress, he couldn’t say that the behavior met the narrow definition of consolation, as it was not clear whether it followed conflict. The elephants might have been scared by a person, dog, or, in some cases, a noise that humans couldn’t hear.
But, he said, in every other way the elephant behavior showed that they were acting to reassure elephants that were upset.
He and Dr. de Waal reported the findings in an article last week in PeerJ, an online scientific journal.