As it turns out, elephants don’t just have good memories, but are also able to sense when others are in distress and console them — by cuddling them.
According to a new study, their version of a snuggle and a “shh, don’t worry, I’m here,” are chirping and a trunk hug, Le Temps reports. Just like people, they reassure their companions with physical contact and oral communication.
[rebelmouse-image 27087818 alt="""" original_size="376x206" expand=1]
The study was conducted at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, where researchers assessed over the course of a year a group of 26 pachyderms when they were disturbed and frightened by natural events: the presence of a snake or a dog, or strange sounds.
When elephants are frightened, their ears and tails stand up or they stand in a bent position while emitting grunts at low frequencies. According to head researcher Joshua Plotnik, when one shows these signs, the others comfort with chirping or by putting their trunks in his mouth as a sign of trust.
This behavior is comparable to chimpanzees studied in conflict situations. “Once a fight between two great apes ends,” says Frans de Waal, another lead researcher on the elephant study, “we found that other members of the group come and console the loser. They also put their fingers into his mouth to calm him down.”
The phenomenon, known as “emotional contagion,” is also widespread in humans. “Just think of a couple watching a scary scene in a movie,” says Plotnik. “Their hearts beat fast and they end up getting closer until they hug for reassurance.”
De Waal says that empathy is present in all mammals because it is essential for raising offspring. For animals who live in herds, like elephants, the tendency to take care of others increases as they age, and they have the urge to comfort those who are distressed.
“We now know that the mental life of elephants is as complex as that of apes,” says de Waal. “We also found that that cognitive abilities initially only attributed to humans — or at most, primates — are also present in dogs, dolphins and even crows.”
The researchers hope that this deeper understanding of the intellectual and emotional complexity of elephants will give humans more respect for them, so that they will be protected in their wild habitats and not commercially exploitated for their tusks.
[rebelmouse-image 27143827 alt="""" original_size="526x351" expand=1]
Main photo: jasminelundmark via Instagram