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Cuteness Overload: Elephants Cuddle Each Other For Comfort

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.

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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.

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Main photo: jasminelundmark via Instagram

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Injecting Feminism Into Science Is A Good Thing — For Science

Feminists have generated a set of tools to make science less biased and more robust. Why don’t more scientists use it?

As objective as any man

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a mystery played out across news headlines: Men, it seemed, were dying of infection at twice the rate of women. To explain this alarming disparity, researchers looked to innate biological differences between the sexes — for instance, protective levels of sex hormones, or distinct male-female immune responses. Some even went so far as to test the possibility of treating infected men with estrogen injections.

This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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