When an elephant sees another in distress, he consoles him. He touches him to calm him down, using his “trunk to gently touch [his] face.” He may also put his trunk in the distressed elephant’s mouth, much like a chimpanzee will put a hand into a distressed compatriot’s mouth.
One author of the study that made this finding (which was published in Peer J on February 16, 2014), Dr. Frans de Waal, says 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.” They also make a high-pitched chirping sound to comfort each other; see it on video here. Sometimes a whole group of elephants will surround and chirp to a distressed individual.
The researchers observed 26 elephants in captivity in Thailand. Only the mother-offspring pairs were related to each other; the rest were not family, though in the wild elephants live in family groups. It is already known that when they are in distress, elephants flare their ears, hold their tails erect, and sometimes make distinct vocalizations, so the scientists in this study were able to identify when one was upset.
Once again, scientists have found that humans aren’t unique in the animal kingdom, though in some ways we are in the minority. According to Sci-News.com, “consolation behavior is rare in the animal kingdom, with empirical evidence previously provided only for the great apes, canines and certain corvids,” which are a family of birds that includes crows and ravens. Humans are most definitely not the only species that displays empathy, which study author Dr. Joshua Plotnik defines as “the ability to put yourself emotionally into someone else’s shoes.”
Plotnik is the founder and CEO of Think Elephants International, a non-profit group that advocates for elephants. He hopes that learning more about elephants’ behavior will help lessen the conflict between them and some people in Asia. Elephants encroach on crops as people destroy their wild habitat and natural food sources. Cynthia Moss, an ethologist and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, agrees that “good science that supports the idea that elephants are sentient beings capable of empathy is important” to conservation efforts.
Other researchers have found that rats also empathize with each other: when one rat comes across another who is in a cage, she will figure out how to open it and release the prisoner. Not only does she not need a reward to do this, she will actually give away a reward — she will share her own stash of chocolate chips with the newly-freed, distressed rat. Giving away one’s chocolate is some heavy-duty consoling behavior.
“There is nothing in it for them except for whatever feeling they get from helping another individual,” said University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason, who conducted the experiment. The rat study, conducted in 2011, was the first time that non-primates were observed helping each other out of empathy. De Waal, one of the elephant study authors, called the rat experiment “truly groundbreaking,” especially because it seemed that there was “no clear cost benefit trade-off going on.” The Washington Post reported that de Waal observed, “we are entering a distinctly psychological realm of emotions and reactions to the emotions of others, which is where most human altruism finds its motivation.”
If non-human animals can be altruistic — i.e., charitable — it raises some big questions. Do they have souls, however one defines them? Can non-human animals be moral? If they can, does that mean morality is no more than an artifact of evolution — that our genes determine whether we are “good” or “bad” people?
Whatever these findings say about our own moral natures, they clearly show that we have underestimated non-human animals.
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