Just as a hug can reassure another human that "everything's going to be ok," gentle touches and trunk strokes can carry the same message between elephants. According to new research, Asian elephants are part of the limited collection of animals that display reassuring behavior to distressed members of their group. Previously, only humans, great apes and birds in the raven family were known to do this, National Geographic reports.
Asian elephants joined this sympathetic group after researchers noticed some striking behavior in a group of 26 captive aniamls in Thailand. Whenever one of the elephants went through a stressful situation and demonstrated signs of distress, Wired says, other elephants would come over and give the distressed elephant a gentle pat. The elephants also would often make a "high-pitched chirping sound," similar to the warm tone a human might take to show a startled child that everything is ok. NatGeo elaborates on the findings:
There was also evidence of "emotional contagion," when herd mates matched the behavior and emotional state of the upset individual. In other words, seeing a "friend" in distress was distressing to the observers. Those animals also consoled one another.
Elephants are known to be extremely social creatures that establish strong bonds with each other. They fiercely protect babies and mourn their dead, so it's not too shocking to find that they also console one another, too. Still, the researchers point out to NatGeo, there is surprisingly few studies conducted on the animals' social lives and cognition, so this work moves to enrich our understanding and appreciation of those complex animals.