The Loh Down On Science

The way elephants reassure each other will melt your heart

Plotnik & de Waal, PeerJ, 2014

Talk about a trunk show!  These elephants emote!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

When elephants panic, their ears go out.  Their tails stand erect.  They give off a low-frequency rumble-type distress signal. 

Meet Joshua Plotnick from Emory University.  He and colleauges studied 26 Asian elephants in Thailand.  Turns out, not only researchers notice when distressed elephants send out their “I’m having a meltdown” signals.  So do nearby elephant friends … who hurry over to try and calm their freaked-out kin.  

Their trunk-on approaches involve gently touching their stressed friend’s face.  Even going so far as to put their trunk in the other animal’s mouth.  This move, says Plotnick, makes the consoler vulnerable to being bitten.  But it sends the message, “I’m here to help, not hurt.”  

The team found that helper elephants also make a chirping sound as they amble over to their friends.  It's a sound the researchers never hear the elephants make when they're alone. They think it’s saying something like, “Shh, it’s okay.”

So, how exactly would we calm a four-ton elephant? Very carefully, is still the answer!

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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