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Elephant comfort: Giant animals get empathy, elephants offer support for stress

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Elephant comfort isn’t some form of animal-human therapy, but it is part of a new study that reveals elephants “get” empathy. These giant animals offer support for one another during times of stress, and in addition to their good memory, serve as solid companions for other elephantine friends and family. Yahoo! News reports this Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 , that this interesting finding was made by Think Elephants International in cooperation with Emory University, and has led experts to rethink how these massive creatures act toward one another.

Although an elephant never forgets is the popular adage surrounding these animals, it appears that elephant comfort is another skill of these empathy loving giants. Researchers in the recent study examined a total of 26 elephants in a large herd for over a year in northern regions of Thailand. Rather than purposefully creating stressful situations for the elephants, they instead patiently waited for a stressful situation to happen naturally in the environment.

Stimuli of these “stressful situations” could be one of the herd members getting sick or an elephant hearing an unexpected sound. Researchers soon learned that these giant animals were much more likely to provide comfort and support for one another during these taxing times than in the middle of a normal control period. The animal experts also learned that the elephants have a particular knack for empathy, being capable of sensing when other creatures in the herd are suffering or stressed.

In order to comfort the elephants, one animal would often initiate physical contact with another. Through either a vocal response or what can be called a “trunk touch,” the elephant would extend itself out to its stressed-out brethren. Many times, this trunk touch leaves the elephant in a vulnerable position, showing that the animal is willing to truly put itself forward in order to offer support for an ailing friend or family member in the herd.

Lead researcher Joshua Plotnik of Emory University said in a new statement to Discovery News that these physical offerings might "be sending a signal of 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you.'"

The vocal calls, too, have an important role in this elephant comfort gesture.

"I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone,” added Plotnik. "It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's OK,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."

Visible signs of a worried or stressed elephant often include an uplifted tail or excessively outstretched and flapping ears.

"Animals like elephants, dolphins and corvids [ravens and related bird species] are also important study subjects for understanding how complex cognition evolves,” he said on these creature "getting" empathy.

Another researcher concluded the interesting animal report by quoting, "With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others. 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."

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