Elephants console each other using trunks, researchers find

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 11:19pm


When life gets stressful, Asian elephants help their pals feel better by trumpeting sympathetic noises and using their trunks to touch their friend's - um - private parts, according to new research.

For a study, published in the journal PeerJ, animal behaviourists observed 26 captive elephants in a sanctuary in northern Thailand.

They recorded a number of actions that they concluded were specifically intended to comfort distressed herd members.

Behaviour included touching the distressed elephant's genitals with their trunks, putting their trunks in the distressed elephant's mouth, or making a high-pitched "chirping" noise.

"Elephants do a lot of touching of others with their trunks. Genital touching is a way for elephants to identify others, and in this case, it may also be a way for the elephants to identify the behavioural state of the others," said co-author Joshua Plotnik, a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and chief executive of the charity Think Elephants International.

"I think the genital touching, in combination with other touches, specifically in this context, serves to reassure the other elephant," Plotnik said. "We also see the elephants put their trunks into each others' mouths, which seems to be a way of saying, 'I'm here to help you'."

Consoling behaviour is rare in the animal kingdom. Humans, great apes, dogs and some birds are known to attend to peers in distress, scientists say.

"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," said co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta. "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."