Elephants empathize.

Science magazine reaches out with new research showing that elephants don’t just mourn their dead, but also try to comfort those in anguish:

The study “is the first to investigate responses to distress by Asian elephants,” which “is inherently difficult to assess because one has to wait for opportunities to arise spontaneously,” says Shermin de Silva, a behavioral ecologist at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. It would not be ethical to intentionally create stressful situations for the animals as a test, she notes—which is why, until now, researchers have had to rely on well-documented but anecdotal observations of wild and captive elephants to back up claims that they reassure each other.

Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi, in Thailand, and Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, got around this problem by comparing Asian elephants’ behaviors during times of stress to periods when little upset them. For 1 to 2 weeks every month for nearly a year, Plotnik spent 30 to 180 minutes daily watching and recording 26 captive Asian elephants. The animals ranged in age from 3 to 60 years old and lived within a 30-acre area of Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand.

Plotnik watched the elephants during their free periods and recorded their reactions to stressful events, such as a dog walking nearby, a snake rustling in the grass, or the presence of an unfriendly elephant. Other researchers have previously shown that when upset, an elephant flares its ears and erects its tail; it may also trumpet or roar, or make a low rumble to show its distress. When elephants in the park saw another elephant behaving in this manner, the observers typically responded by “adopting the same emotion,” Plotnik says, “just as we do when watching a scary movie together. If an actor is frightened, our hearts race, and we reach for each other’s hands”—a reaction known as “emotional contagion.”

Most significantly, the elephants seemed capable of recognizing distress in their fellows, a behavior that may require empathy. “It’s that ability to put yourself emotionally into another’s shoes,” Plotnik says.

The original research is here. I found out about it on the reddits.