The first evidence of elephants consoling other elephants that were distressed was presented by Joshua Plotnik of Emory University and Frans de Waal, an Emory professor of psychology and director of Living Links at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in the Feb. 18, 2014, edition of the journal PeerJ.
Asian Elephants were observed displaying distressed behavior when another elephant in their group became distressed. The elephants offered support for their distressed companion by vocalizations and touching the distressed elephant.
The 26 elephants involved in the investigation displayed a significantly higher level of physical contact with an elephant that displayed distress. The signal for a distressful event in elephants includes a low-frequency vocalization. This frequency of vocalization may be the cue to the other elephants that a distressful event has occurred. The responding elephants displayed behavior that could be considered empathy in humans.
Elephants can be added to the short list of animals that console each other during and after stressful events including man, the great apes, and dogs.
The researchers note that a limitation to their interpretation of the observed events may be that the elephants involved in the research were captive in an elephant camp in northern Thailand.
The display of empathy may be fostered by a long-term association between members of the elephant group. This too could be interpreted as being similar to higher levels of empathy seen in people that have known each other for long periods of time.