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Feb 18, 2014 11:19 AM EST

Punch Trunk Love: Asian Elephants Show Compassion, Empathy By Trunk Touching And Secondhand Distress

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Perhaps Will Ferrell should have brought along an elephant during his legendary cameo in "Wedding Crashers" when he crashed a funeral in order to prey on grieving women (a ploy that generated disgust and respect from Owen Wilson's character). In a rare move for animals, Asian elephants are frequent consolers of other elephants in distress, according to a recent study reported by the Los Angeles Times. They convey sympathy by inserting their trunks in the elephants' mouths or using them to touch their genitals.  

It isn't, however, a sexual advance, but simply a way to comfort a fellow member of the species.

"I think the genital touching, in combination with other touches, specifically in this context, serves to reassure the other elephant," Joshua M. Plotnik, the study's co-author, told the LA Times. "We also see the elephants put their trunks into each other's mouths, which seems to be a way of saying, 'I'm here to help you.' "

Elephants demonstrate their unease by projecting their ears out, raising their tail tall or curling it outwards, and emitting a low-decibel "rumble or roar," according to the study. As a sign of empathy, other elephants not directly affected by the stressor mimicked the behavior during the year Plotnik and fellow co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University, spent observing their behavior.

Thus, not only can elephants recognize distress and attempt to quiet it, but they can experience it through others, almost like a human crying after a sad movie. Their compassion speaks to their high intelligence. Only apes, canines, and some corvids (a type of bird) have been known to exhibit similar behavior.

Scientists have long known about elephants' thoughtful ways; this study is unique in that it is the first empirical evidence of such behavior, which means Plotnik and de Waal observed, tracked, and statistically analyzed consoling behaviors.

"The consistency with which elephants responded to a friend in distress was quite remarkable," said Plotnik. "Rarely did an elephant give a distress call without a response from a friend or group member nearby."

Besides furthering scientific knowledge about elephants, the study is good PR for a species that has clashed, at times, with local populations throughout Asia. The proliferation of its results could aid conservation efforts, according to the researchers.

"In Asia, there are serious problems with human and elephant conflict, and we really don't understand why elephants are attacking people and raiding crops," Plotnik said. "Although we know that elephant habitat is shrinking rapidly, a better understanding of elephant behavior could really help in developing comprehensive conservation management protocols that acknowledge the elephants' perspective." 

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