Emory researchers and alumni learn life lessons through animal studies

By Maria M. Lameiras and Carol Clark | Emory Magazine | June 18, 2014

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Elephants are among very few species who console one another. Photo courtesy Elise Gilchrist/Think Elephants International, Inc.

When someone you care about is upset, it's natural to reach out—to offer a reassuring touch or a soothing word.

Turns out, it's natural for elephants too.

Asian elephants console others who are in distress using physical touches and vocalizations, according to a recent study led by Joshua Plotnik 10PhD. The findings are the first empirical evidence of consolation in elephants, says Plotnik, who began the research as a graduate student in psychology at Emory. "For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it," he says.

Consolation behavior is rare in the animal kingdom, with scientific evidence previously provided only for great apes, canines, and certain corvids (a family of birds that includes crows).

"With their strong social bonds, it's not surprising that elephants show concern for others," says study coauthor Frans de Waal, professor of psychology and director of Living Links at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center. "This study demonstrates that elephants get distressed when they see others in distress, reaching out to calm them down, not unlike the way chimpanzees or humans embrace someone who is upset."

Plotnik is a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and CEO of Think Elephants International, a nonprofit focused on education and conservation. His main research interest is convergent cognitive evolution: The independent evolution of similar features of intelligence in species of different lineages.

Full story in Emory Magazine »