TUESDAY, Feb. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Asian elephants use touch and sound to console other elephants in distress, according to a new study.
It's the first study to confirm that elephants comfort one another in difficult times, the researchers said. Along with humans, this type of behavior has been verified only in great apes, canines and a family of birds called corvids, which includes crows, ravens and blue jays.
"For centuries, people have observed that elephants seem to be highly intelligent and empathic animals, but as scientists we need to actually test it," study lead author Joshua Plotnik, who began the research as a graduate student of psychology at Emory University, said in a university news release.
Plotnik is currently a lecturer in conservation biology at Mahidol University in Thailand and CEO of Think Elephants International, a nonprofit education and conservation group.
The researchers spent nearly a year recording stressful events -- such as the presence of potentially dangerous animals or unfriendly elephants -- and responses among 26 captive Asian elephants at a camp in northern Thailand.
When responding to a distressed elephant, other elephants would often use their trunks to gently touch the upset elephant's face or put their trunks in its mouth, which is almost like a handshake or hug in humans, Plotnik said.
"It's a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten," he said. "It may be sending a signal of, 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you.'"
Vocalization was another method of consolation.
"The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound," Plotnik said. "I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone. It may be a signal like, 'Shhh, it's OK' -- the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."
Bunching together, making physical contact and adopting a similar emotional state were other common responses the elephants had when one of them was distressed, according to the study, which is scheduled for publication in the journal PeerJ.
Study co-author Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory, said he's not surprised that elephants show concern for each other.
"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," de Waal, director of Living Links at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, said in the news release.
The World Wildlife Fund has more about elephants.