Even animals like Asian elephants show empathy, says study

A new study has suggested that even animals show empathy and are capable of reassuring their fellow mates.

The researchers carried study on Asian elephants and found that even they console and reassure each other when they are distressed. They show their distress and comfort to others by physical touches and vocalizations.

According to the researchers, this is the first empirical evidence of consolation in elephants.

Experts say, consolation behaviour is rare in the animal kingdom and so far scientists have empirical evidence only for the great apes, canines and certain corvids.


Lead author Joshua Plotnik, who began the research at Emory University, said, “For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it.”

Another author Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology, said, “With their strong social bonds, it’s not surprising that elephants show concern for others. This study demonstrates that elephants get distressed when they see others in distress, reaching out to calm them down, not unlike the way chimpanzees or humans embrace someone who is upset.”

For the study, researchers focused on 26 captive Asian elephants spread over about 30 acres at an elephant camp in northern Thailand. The researchers observed them for nearly a year and recorded incidents when an elephant displayed a stress reaction, and the responses from other nearby elephants.

Plotnik cites an incident to explain the animal’s behavior. He says, when an elephant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rumble, trumpet and roar to signal its distress.

The findings of the study was published in the journal PeerJ.