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Elephants Use Handshakes And Hugs To Comfort Stressed Friends

Update Date: Feb 18, 2014 05:34 PM EST
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Having a bad day? If you're close to an elephant, it might come an comfort you. 

Scientists found that Asian elephants console those in distress using touches and vocalizations.  

Researchers said the latest findings are the first empirical evidence of consolation in elephants.

"For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it," lead author Joshua Plotnik of Emory University said in a news release.

According to experts, comforting behavior is rare in the animal kingdom. Previous studies revealed this type of behavior only in the great apes, canines and certain corvids like crows and ravens.

"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," co-author Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology and director of Living Links at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, said in a news release. "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."

Plotnik and de Waal previously found that elephants solve problems cooperatively and pass the mirror test, meaning they have enough self-awareness to recognize themselves in the mirror.  Previous tests on animals revealed that only some apes, dolphins and magpies were able to recognize themselves in the mirror.

"Humans are unique in many ways, but not in as many ways as we once thought," Plotnik explained.

The latest study involved a group of 26 captive Asian elephants at an elephant camp in northern Thailand. Researchers monitored and recorded cases when an elephant showed a stress reaction and responses from other nearby elephants.

Consoling behavior was observed after elephants experienced distressing events such as seeing a dog walk past, a snake or other potentially dangerous animals lurking nearby and in the presence of another, unfriendly elephant.

"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," said Plotnik.

Researchers discovered that nearby elephants seemed to interact significantly more with a distressed individuals thorough directed, physical contact following a stressful event than during control periods.

For example, an elephant would walk to another distressed elephant's side and use its truck to gently touch its face or engage in an "elephant handshake" or "hug" by putting its trunk in the other animal's mouth.

 "It's a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten. It may be sending a signal of, 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you,'" Plotnik explained.

Elephants also make sounds when they see that their peers are distressed.

"The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound," Plotnik said. "I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone. It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's okay,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."

The findings are published in the journal PeerJ.

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