When life gets stressful, Asian elephants help their pals feel better by trumpeting sympathetic noises and using their trunks to touch their friend's — um — private parts, according to new research.
In a study published in the journal PeerJ, animal behaviorists observed 26 elephants in a sanctuary in Thailand. The researchers said they recorded a number of elephant behaviors that they concluded were specifically intended to comfort distressed herd members.
The behaviors included touching the distressed elephant's genitals with their trunks, putting their trunks in the distressed elephant's mouth, or making a high-pitched "chirping" noise.
"I think the genital touching, in combination with other touches, specifically in this context, serves to reassure the other elephant," said co-author Joshua Plotnik, a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and chief executive of the nonprofit Think Elephants International. "We also see the elephants put their trunks into each others' mouths, which seems to be a way of saying, 'I'm here to help you.' "
Consoling behaviors are rare in the animal kingdom. Great apes, dogs and some birds are known to attend to peers in distress.
"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," said co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta. "Elephants get distressed when they see others in distress.''
The bummer events that got the study's pachyderms to fretting included dogs walking past, snakes or other creepy animals rustling in the grass, or the presence of an unfriendly elephant.
"The consistency with which elephants responded to a friend in distress was quite remarkable,'' Plotnik said. "Rarely did an elephant give a distress call without a response from a friend or group member nearby."
The elephants observed were all between 3 and 60 years old, and adult male elephants were excluded from the sample. In the wild, elephant family groups consist of related adult females and their immature offspring. Male elephants leave their family groups when they reach sexual maturity and either roam solo or form small bachelor herds.