Baby elephant sucking its trunk, like a human baby sucks its thumb. This fascinated Mona
When elephants encounter an elephant skeleton, they slow down, approach it cautiously, and caressthe bones with their trunk and the bottoms of their sensitive padded feet. Elephants do not show the same interest in the remains of other species. In one experiment elephants spent twice as much time investigating an elephant skull as those of either a rhinoceros and buffalo and six times longer probing ivory than a piece of wood. Moss has witnessed elephants kicking dirt over skeletons and covering them with palm fronds. Plotnik and renowned animal behavior expert Frans de Waal of Emory University recently teamed up to study elephant empathy.
On a monthly basis between the spring of 2008 and 2009 they observed 26 Asian elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, looking for signs of what researchers call “consolation.” Many animals are capable “reconciliation”—making up after a tussle. Far fewer animals display true consolation: when a bystander goes out of his or her way to comfort the victim of a fight or an individual that is disturbed for some reason. On dozens of occasions Plotnik and de Waal saw elephants consoling one another. A perturbed elephant often perks up its ears and tail and squeals, roars or trumpets.
Over the course of the study, many elephants behaved in this way, because of an altercation, because they were spooked by something—such as a helicopter or dog—or for an unknown cause. When other elephants recognized these signs of anxiety, they rushed to the upset animal’s side, chirping softly and stroking their fellow elephant’s head and genitals. Sometimes the elephants put their trunks in one another’s mouths—a sign of trust because doing so risks being bitten.
The aspect of elephant intelligence that is the trickiest to gauge—the one that has really challenged scientists to think like an elephant—is self-awareness. Scientists now have preliminary evidence that elephants are indeed self-aware, overturning previous findings. To determine whether an animal has a sense of self, researchers first place a mark on an animal’s body that it can identify only with the help of a mirror. Then they wait to see if the animal tries to get rid of the mark when it encounters its reflection.