The Duncan Banner

Community News Network

February 19, 2014

New study: Elephants console each other

ANDERSON, Ind. — Elephants, both African and Asian, have long been considered empathetic animals. They help baby elephants stuck in mud holes, use their trunks to lift other elephants that are injured or dying, and even reportedly reassure distressed individual elephants with a gentle touch of their trunk. But it's one thing to witness something that looks like consolation, and another to prove that this is what elephants are doing. Now, scientists have shown that Asian elephants do indeed get distressed when they see others in trouble, and they reach out to console them — just as humans tend to do when we see someone suffering. Elephants, thus, join a short list of other animals, including great apes, canines and some birds, that scientists have shown to reassure others.

The study "is the first to investigate responses to distress by Asian elephants," which "is inherently difficult to assess because one has to wait for opportunities to arise spontaneously," says Shermin de Silva, a behavioral ecologist at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. It would not be ethical to intentionally create stressful situations for the animals as a test, she notes. This is why, until now, researchers have had to rely on well-documented but anecdotal observations of wild and captive elephants to back up claims that they reassure each other.

Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi, in Thailand, and Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, got around this problem by comparing Asian elephants' behaviors during times of stress to periods when little upset them. For one to two weeks every month for nearly a year, Plotnik spent 30 to 180 minutes daily watching and recording 26 captive Asian elephants. The animals ranged in age from 3 to 60 years old and lived within a 30-acre area of Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. Most of the elephants, aside from mother-juvenile pairs, were unrelated and did not live in family groups as wild elephants do. Instead, the park's Mahouts, or keepers, organized them into six groups which they then guided through a daily routine — bathing and feeding them in the morning, and tethering them at night. But during the day, the elephants were left alone to roam and graze at will.

Plotnik watched the elephants during their free periods and recorded their reactions to stressful events, such as a dog walking nearby, a snake rustling in the grass or the presence of an unfriendly elephant. Other researchers have previously shown that when upset, an elephant flares its ears and erects its tail; it may also trumpet or roar, or make a low rumble to show its distress. When elephants in the park saw another elephant behaving in this manner, the observers typically responded by "adopting the same emotion," Plotnik says, "just as we do when watching a scary movie together. If an actor is frightened, our hearts race, and we reach for each other's hands" — a reaction known as "emotional contagion."

For example, in one event recorded on video, the female Mae Perm rushes to the side of another adult female, Jokia, who was upset after hearing the roar of a captive bull elephant in another nearby park. Both elephants push their ears forward and raise their tails, but Mae Perm does so only after seeing Jokia's distress. Mae Perm also makes loud chirps, which are known to be reassuring calls, and then caresses Jokia with her trunk, finally placing it in Jokia's mouth — an act that "might send a signal, 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you,' " Plotnik says. Jokia, in turn, places her trunk in Mae Perm's mouth — a gesture that is probably like a hug, the researchers say.

Sometimes several elephants were present when one was spooked by something. These bystanders typically reacted the same way, adopting the agitated behavior of the victim, as Plotnik calls the distressed individual, raising their tails, flaring their ears, and sometimes urinating and defecating while chirping. In some cases, they also formed a protective circle around the victim.

Plotnik recorded 84 such stressful incidents, noting where each occurred, the time of day, weather and what other elephants were present — and how these individuals reacted. For a control, he compared these incidents with periods with as many matching variables as possible, but when nothing stressful occurred. The researchers' subsequent analysis — reported Tuesday in PeerJ — showed that the elephants' emotional contagion and distinctive, reassuring behaviors happened almost exclusively in response to some stressful trigger.

Most significantly, the elephants seemed capable of recognizing distress in their fellows, a behavior that may require empathy. "It's that ability to put yourself emotionally into another's shoes," Plotnik says.

But proving that is what elephants are doing will take more studies, he and others say, and preferably in wild, not captive, populations. "What is unclear is whether this reassurance primarily benefits the distressed animal, or the responders," de Silva says.

Nevertheless, the study "provides a very interesting first exploration" into the "post-distress behavior of elephants," says Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, adding that the findings are "intriguing because they parallel what has been observed in captive and wild non-human primates, further underlining the complex cognitive abilities of elephants."

Some think the work may aid conservation efforts. "Any good science that supports the idea that elephants are sentient beings capable of empathy is important," adds Cynthia Moss, an ethologist and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, who has observed "reassurance behaviors" daily among the elephants there for more than 40 years.

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 17, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 17, 2014

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.51.22 PM.png VIDEO: Toddler climbs into vending machine

    A child is safe after climbing into and getting stuck inside a claw crane machine at a Lincoln, Neb., bowling alley Monday.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • portraitoflotte.jpg VIDEO: From infant to teen in four minutes

    Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester’s time lapse video of his daughter, Lotte — created by filming her every week from her birth until she turned 14 — has become a viral sensation.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

Poll

Who do you favor for the U.S. Senate seat that Tom Coburn is giving up?

State Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Edmond
State Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City
Former State Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso
     View Results
AP Video