Why elephants chance their arm

ARISTOTLE, who was born in 384BC, considered elephants superior to all other animals in ‘wit and mind’. Many wildlife rangers, zookeepers, and mahouts living with working elephants, would agree.

Why elephants chance their arm

These highly social animals communicate with each other vocally and physically. They can remember where water or salt were found decades earlier. They even have funeral rituals. The herd gathers round, making low rumbling sounds, trying to get the victim to stand. Coming on the bones of a dead elephant, the troop will pause, as if in memoriam.

However, projecting human emotions onto animals, as Aristotle did, is no longer acceptable. We must resist the temptation to ‘anthropomorphise’; interpretations of animal behaviour require hard evidence if they are to be taken seriously. This can be difficult to obtain but a paper just published in the Peer journal presents the findings of one such study.

In 2006, Joshua Plotnik and a team from Emory University in Atlanta introduced three elephants to a giant mirror at Bronx Zoo, New York. One repeatedly investigated an ‘X’, painted on her body, which could only be seen in the mirror. Clearly, she has an awareness of ‘self’. Only humans, the other great apes, and dolphins, are known to possess this faculty.

Plotnik’s team have just spent a year at a 12 hectare park in northern Thailand, studying Asian elephants. Dublin Zoo has five of these magnificent beasts; it may soon have eight as three of the four females are pregnant. Working with a larger group than Dublin’s, 26 animals aged three to 30, the scientists recorded the responses of individuals encountering another in distress.

Seeing a dog in their vicinity can upset elephants. Snakes frighten them, as do suspicious movements in grass or undergrowth. Meeting an unfriendly rival has a similar effect. A stressed elephant may extend its ears, raise its tail vertically or emit low-pitched rumbling sounds. It can ‘trumpet’ or roar.

Reactions to perceived danger are common throughout the animal kingdom. The alarm calls and ‘anxiety notes’ of birds alert neighbours to the arrival of a predator. Seeing a wolf pack, musk oxen will ‘circle the wagons’, the bulls and cows facing outwards with the calves corralled inside the defensive ring. But the responses of the Thai elephants when one of them became upset, went much further. The distressed individual was approached and comforted by a ‘bystander’ who touched it reassuringly.

The comforter may even put its trunk into the victim’s mouth, an extraordinary gesture, the equivalent, Plotnik suggests, of a handshake or a hug. In 1492 the Duke of Ormonde, quarrelling with the Duke of Leinster, took refuge in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. Famously, a hole was cut in the door through which Leinster offered his enemy the hand of friendship, a dangerous gesture. An elephant putting its vulnerable trunk near another’s powerful mouth is also ‘chancing its arm’. ‘I’m here to help, not to hurt’, it seems to say.

The upset individual and the bystander would then begin vocalising, producing high frequency sounds not heard from elephants at other times. The helper would assume the same posture as the victim, in a form of ‘emotional contagion’. Such ‘consolation behaviour’ might be a response to the original threat. However, Plotnik thinks, it could also show the elephant’s ability to put itself, emotionally, in another’s shoes. This would require empathy of which only self-aware creatures are capable.

Consolation behaviour has been recorded in a handful of species. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, will embrace a member of their group in distress. Dogs show empathy and drowning people have claimed that bottle-nosed dolphins rescued them. A dead magpie may be approached by others and the carcass inspected. Marc Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, recorded a magpie bringing grass and laying it, like a wreath, on the corpse.

The elephant research, to date, has been confined to zoo animals. The team will now study wild herds.

Plotnick JM, de Wall FB. 2014. Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) reassure others in distress. PeerJ

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