We've all seen those remarkable videos of elephants working together to help baby elephants stuck in muddy waterholes. The youngster struggles to make its way to the dry bank, only to slip and fall again. And then, its mother and other adults come to the baby's aid. They stomp the ground, trying to make a step for the wee one, and reach out with their trunks to offer their aid. Sometimes, they wrap their trunks around the baby, as we would extend our hand to someone who has fallen and cannot get up. And with the assistance of the other elephants, the baby eventually finds its footing and is saved. At this point, its mother and others in its family crowd around the youngster, touching and caressing it with their trunks. To our eyes, it looks as if they're consoling the baby, and using their trunks to tell it, "You're okay now. You're safe. We're here with you." And now, scientists can confirm that is the case.
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 -- which 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."