Elephants Added to List of Animals That Show Empathy

The list of empathetic animal species continues to grow, with everything from funeral-attending birds to chirping elephants demonstrating care and concern for others.

Asian elephants have just been added to the list of animals that show tremendous concern for others. A study in the journal PeerJ found that when an Asian elephant detects that another is stressed out, it uses its trunk to gently caress the suffering elephant and emits a sweet-sounding chirp.

"I've never heard that vocalization when elephants are alone," lead author Joshua Plotnik said. "It may be a signal like, 'Shshhh, it's okay,' the sort of sounds a human adult might make to reassure a baby."

Plotnik, CEO of Think Elephants International and a lecturer at Mahidol University, and colleagues also found that consoling elephants might put their trunk into the other elephant's mouth.

"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.'"

Empathy is for the birds too. Ravens are a species of corvid, an avian group that tends to be highly intelligent.

Researchers at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria found that ravens console friends feeling stressed after fights. The large black birds did this by sitting next to the distressed bird and sometimes preening it or gently engaging in beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching. As for elephants, this appears to convey reassurance of support.

Empathy may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than is currently believed. Often it is simply hard to prove such feelings and related behaviors during experiments. Studies on mice reveal that they detect the pain and suffering of familiar others. They only seem to console friends and relatives, though.

"Mice are capable of a more complex form of empathy than we ever believed possible," said Garet Lahvis, an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University who studied the rodents. "We believe there's a genetic contribution to the ability for empathy that has broad implications for autism research and other psychosocial disorders."

Like mice and humans, rats can automatically sense and respond to others' positive and negative emotions, such as excitement, fear or anger. Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University and his team discovered that rats help other stressed out rats with no explicit rewards at stake.

"Simplified models of empathy, as in mice and rats, offer new inroads for understanding our own social-emotional nature and nurture," he wrote in a Science paper. "Such knowledge may eventually help us promote nurturant behaviors in humans."

Dawn Prince Hughes, author of the book "Gorillas Among Us: A Primate Ethnographer's Book of Days," spent a decade directly observing Western lowland gorillas. His research shows there is little doubt that they comfort and care for each other. They will even play and care for dolls, seemingly pretending that the toys are infants or pals.

Hughes observed one young gorilla, Nonesha, go through the gorilla version of the terrible two's. She would cry and trip, falling flat on her face. Nonesha's observant father would then "sigh deeply and pat her softly on the back," according to Hughes. Mother Binami would then "rush over to whisk (Nonesha) away, looking apologetic."

"Crows and other corvids are highly complex cognitively and socially," Renee Ha of the University of Washington said after studying the birds. Crows seem to exhibit empathy, primarily for relatives.

The word "orangutan" is derived from the Malay term "man of the forest," a fitting moniker for one of our closest relatives. Just as a happy or depressed person can affect the moods of other people, so too is emotion "contagious" among orangutans.

Davila Ross from the University of Portsmouth observed that orangutans are so full of empathy for others that they take on their moods. The good news is that this seems to apply to happiness as well. Orangutans, for example, have an open-mouthed expression combined with a joyful noise that is thought to be their version of laughter. When one orangutan laughs, chances are, others will join in.

Scrub jays, along with other corvids (crows, ravens and magpies) gather for elaborate, lengthy "funerals" for deceased members of their own species, according to researchers, such as Teresa Iglesias of UC Davis, who have studied the behavior. The birds summon others to fly and emit wail-like screeches over the dead body. Could this be a way of sharing grief or somehow saying goodbye in a ritualistic fashion? Researchers don't yet know.

Iglesias, however, said, "I think there's a huge possibility that there is much more to learn about the social and emotional lives of birds."

Chimpanzees are so sensitive to the emotions of others that researchers sometimes use this trait to discipline unruly chimps. Russian psychologist Nadie Ladygina-Kohts, for example, raised a male chimp named Yoni, who would often try to defy her authority.

To get Yoni to behave, Ladygina-Kohts would, at times, feign crying. Seeing this, Yoni would rush to her side, be on his best behavior, and show intense concern.

As pet owners worldwide could attest, many dogs and cats exhibit extraordinary empathy toward other animals, including familiar humans. Felines have a reputation for aloofness, but many studies show cats can be very perceptive of emotions. Both dogs and cats, sensing that their human is distressed, will often approach and make soothing contact with the person.

Sensitivity to the pain and emotions of others requires complex brain processing. Just as there is a neurological basis for empathy, scientists believe brain function problems could underlie psychopathy, which is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse for others.

Jean Decety of the University of Chicago and his team performed MRI scans on the brains of 121 inmates at a medium-security prison. When shown visual scenarios of others in distress (such as a person having a door slam on a finger), psychopaths actually felt pleasure -- instead of empathy -- when imagining others in pain.

Prior research has determined that the rate of psychopathy in prisons is around 23 percent, greater than the average population, which is around 1 percent.