The initial stress responses came from either unobservable, or obvious, stimuli: Events such as a dog walking past, a snake or other potentially dangerous animal rustling the grass, or the presence of another, unfriendly elephant. "When an elephant gets spooked, its ears go out, its tail stands erect or curls out, and it may emit a low-frequency rumble, trumpet and roar to signal its distress," Plotnik says.
The study found that nearby elephants affiliated significantly more with a distressed individual through directed, physical contact following a stress event than during control periods. As a typical example, a nearby elephant would go to the side of the distressed animal and use its trunk to gently touch its face, or put its trunk in the other animal's mouth.
The gesture of putting their trunks in each other's mouths is almost like an elephant handshake or hug, Plotnik says. "It's a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten. It may be sending a signal of, 'I'm here to help you, not hurt you.'"
The responding elephants also showed a tendency to vocalize. "The vocalization I heard most often following a distress event was a high, chirping sound," Plotnik says. "I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone. It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's okay,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."
In addition, elephants frequently responded to the distress signals of other elephants by adopting a similar body or emotional state, a phenomenon known as "emotional contagion," which may be related to empathy. Groups of nearby elephants also were more likely to bunch together, or make physical contact with each other.
As an example of emotional contagion in humans, Plotnik d
|Contact: Beverly Clark|
Emory Health Sciences