Decades ago, de Waal was one of the first to provide evidence of reconciliation in non-human primates, showing how chimpanzees make up with one another after a fight. De Waal's research also demonstrated consolation behavior: After two chimpanzees fight, a third individual may come over and console the distressed loser of the battle with an embrace.
Reconciliation behaviors have since been demonstrated in many more species than those that have shown the capacity for consolation. "One hypothesis for why we don't see consolation as often is that more complex cognition may underlie it," Plotnik says. "Rather than just functioning as a way to maintain or repair relationships in a social group, consolation may also require empathy: The ability to put yourself emotionally into someone else's shoes."
The current elephant study's limitations include the fact that it was restricted to captive animals. "This study is a first step," Plotnik says. "I would like to see this consolation capacity demonstrated in wild populations as well."
Wild populations of elephants, however, are becoming increasingly scarce: Both Asian elephants and African elephants are endangered.
In addition to conducting research, Plotnik strives to educate children in Thailand and the United States about the importance of conserving elephants and their shrinking habitats.
"I really believe that to save elephants and other endangered species, we must educate children about them," he says. "Part of our Think Elephants International curriculum is getting kids directly involved in the research we do, so they learn first-hand about these amazing animals. Elephants are incredibly majestic and there is still so much to learn about their behavior and intelligence."
|Contact: Beverly Clark|
Emory Health Sciences