Research Reveals Elephants’ Emotions, Empathy and Altruism
We know that elephants care about each other – perhaps even more than humans do! Evidence shows they will go to great lengths to understand each other’s feelings and protect one another from harm.
For an animal to have empathy, it needs to understand that it is separate from others and from the outside world. This ability – or lack of – in animals is often studied by using the mirror test, to see how an individual responds to its own reflection. To study this in elephants, researchers put a spot on three individuals’ foreheads, before showing them a mirror. On seeing her reflection, one of the elephants reached up with her trunk to her own forehead, rather than trying to touch the spot on her reflection. Although the other two elephants in this study did not pass the test, the experiment set-up was highly unnatural and probably difficult for them to comprehend, which presented a barrier to them demonstrating the extent of their self-awareness. However, the one breakthrough suggests that elephants may be able to empathise.
Indeed, on seeing another elephant in distress, Elephants will often appear to empathise with them by showing the same signs of distress, such as rumbling and spreading out their ears. They have also been seen apparently comforting other elephants in distress, for example by running over and resting their trunks on them, and through vocal communication.
Asian Elephants have also been observed showing high levels of altruistic behaviour: they will often try to help when they see one of their own herd in danger. In 2019, six elephants were found drowned at a waterfall in Thailand.  The accepted explanation for this tragedy was that they were each trying to save one another after an elephant calf had fallen in. This suggests that Asian elephants may be fully altruistic – they will help each other even if it means placing themselves in danger (see Elephant Story).
African Elephants have often been observed apparently mourning dead elephants, by stopping and touching the carcasses and repeatedly returning to them. It is harder to observe Asian Elephants in the wild, because of the dense jungle terrain which they inhabit. However, thanks to a study in captive Asian Elephants, it appears they are also impacted by the death of a herd member. After the death of an adult female, the herd in the study spent less time socialising overall. Her close relatives were also studied individually. Interestingly, her older calf integrated more within the herd, but her infant calf became very withdrawn. They were also assessed using the Ten-Item Personality Scale, which identifies behaviours indicating frustration, anxiety, impulsivity and other signs of emotional instability. Her infant calf appeared to become very emotionally unstable, while the mother of the dead elephant became more emotionally stable, perhaps because she was left with a calf to care for.
It certainly appears that calves have a special role in unifying a herd: in one study, when one of a herd’s calves died, the herd actually spent more time socialising overall.
When elephants are isolated, or their herd structure is imbalanced, they have increased levels of stress hormones. It seems that elephants are influenced by social interaction and loneliness in similar ways to us – perhaps that is why they are so empathetic.
Surprise: Elephants Comfort Upset Friends. See: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/140218-asian-elephants-empathy-animals-science-behavior.
 Plotnik, J.M et al. (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. PNAS. 103 (43), 17053-17057.
 Plotnik, J.M & de Waal, F.B.M. (2014). Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) reassure others in distress. PeerJ. 2, e278.
 BBC News (2019) Six elephants die trying to save each other at Thai waterfall – Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49944885. (Accessed 06.05.22).
 Rutherford, L & Murray, L.E. (2021). Personality and behavioral changes in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) following the death of herd members. Integrative Zoology. 16 (2), 170-188.
 Seltmann, M.W et al. (2022). Sex-specific links between the social landscape and faecal glucocorticoid metabolites in semi-captive Asian elephants. General and Comparative Endocrinology. 1 (319), 113990.
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