ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS Atlanta) – A new study has found that elephants comfort each other in moments of distress.

“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.

Researchers spent roughly a year recording stressful events and responses among 26 captive Asian elephants at a camp in northern Thailand.  They found that Asian elephants were found to use touch and sound to console other elephants in distress.  It’s one of the first studies to confirm that elephants do comfort each other in difficult times, researchers noted.

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,” Plotnik explained. “It may be sending a signal of, ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you.'”

Another method of consolation was vocalization, he added.

“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.”

The study is scheduled to be published in the journal PeerJ.


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