Elephants Reassure Others In Distress
Much research into the mental lives of non-human animals focuses on determining whether they possess similar cognitive processes and experience the same emotional states as humans. This approach sets humans as the benchmark and assumes we are the most “complex” species. It’s likely, however, that animals engage in their own form of complex behaviors that humans may not be capable of perceiving. Acknowledging this human limitation is humbling. But it’s not a novel perspective for many animal advocates who understand that an animal’s value is not determined by how human-like it appears to think or act. That said, finding mental and emotional continuity between humans and animals is a powerful strategy to promote compassion for non-human animals among the general public. The fact is, many tend to care more about species that seem most similar to them.
Elephants are one species that demonstrate many human-like emotional capabilities. They form deep family bonds and display signs of grief, anger, joy, and play. And though African elephant behavior has been studied extensively, we don’t yet know much about Asian elephants’ behavior and social lives. This study is one of few to explore the Asian elephant and the research specifically looks at whether they reassure each other after a distressing event.
The study was conducted at an Asian elephant sanctuary in Thailand and involved observing six groups of elephants (26 individuals) for 10 months. The researchers observed the groups for about five hours per day. When an individual showed signs of stress (e.g., raised head, extended ears, raised tail, and raised or stiffened trunk, as well as vocalizations such as trumpets, roars, and rumbles), the researchers observed this elephant (the “victim”) and any others who were within 50 meters of the victim and recorded behavior for 10 minutes. The researchers then observed this same group of elephants (or the victim and as many elephants from the original observation as possible) within the next day or two, in the absence of a stressful event. They recorded the elephants’ behaviors and compared them to the behaviors that followed a stressful event. (At the sanctuary, examples of stressful events included the presence of a helicopter overhead, a dog, or an unfamiliar human.)
The researchers made a total of 84 observations, 53 of which involved multiple elephants displaying reassuring behavior toward a victim elephant. Reassurance behavior included physical contact (touching the victim with their trunks), vocalizations (“chirping,” which they often do when close to one another), and bunching (surrounding the distressed elephant and remaining close enough to touch each other with their trunks). The elephants started these behaviors within one minute after observing a distressed individual, and most often these elephants approached the victim on their own volition. The researchers also noted that the bystander elephants frequently adopted the distressed behaviors of the victim, which indicates that the elephants were experiencing “emotional contagion,” or the spreading of an emotional state throughout a group.
The results of this study suggest that elephants are extremely sensitive to the emotional states of others in their social groups and seek to mitigate negative emotions through comforting behavior. These observations provide additional evidence of elephants’ social complexity and rich emotional lives.[Contributed by Christina Skasa]