How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

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A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

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First day

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Wild boar

Curious boar.

December 18, 2012

A breathtaking expanse of bushes peppered with trees.   That is my first impression of Uda Walawe National Park as we pass through the entrance gate in the early hours of the morning.  The shrubs grow densely packed on either side of the ochre-colored road, like a vertically challenged forest.  They are interspersed with teak saplings, a reminder of the days when this park was a timber plantation.  Towering banyan trees soar above the surrounding vegetation, peacocks perched in their uppermost branches.  In the distance, I can see the blue mountains and waterfalls of Nuwara Eliya, and above them, a steely sky striated with rain-laden clouds.  A grey mongoose crosses the road ahead of us, stopping briefly to stare at our jeep before disappearing into the wall of greenery.  Flocks of Common Mynas and Spotted Doves spring into the air as we rumble past.

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The Magnificence of Mud

It’s October, and the monsoon is in full force.  As we wrote in an earlier post the elephants love mud.  They’re just oversized piggies with big floppy ears.  Here’s a video for your amusement:

Why do they love mud so much?  As anyone who has seen or enjoyed a muddy spa retreat can tell you, it’s good for the skin and helps with thermoregulation.  Because elephants don’t sweat, when it’s hot outside the evaporating mud cools them off.  Rudyard Kipling so mischievously wrote in ‘The Elephant’s Child’:

‘Don’t you think the sun is very hot here?’ [says the Rock Python]

‘It is,’ said the Elephant’s Child, and before he thought what he was doing he schlooped up a schloop of mud from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo, and slapped it on his head, where it made a cool schloopy-sloshy mud-cap all trickly behind his ears. Continue reading