Calf interacting with a juvenile  Calf and mahout playing in river  Training session  Street view with elephant  Mahout on a male elephant  Mahout with a juvenile male

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Intertwined trunks
Maintaining social bonds with familiar individuals, reinforced by tactile interaction such as placing the trunk tips to each other's mouths, is a central part of being an elephant.

Interaction between wild males
Playful interaction between young wild males. Spontaneous play behaviour increases positive emotions and well-being. Usually it also signals that the emotional state of the animal was rather good to start with. Sometimes, however, bouts of play also occur when an animal has just been released from a stressful situation.

Pressing trunk to ground
Pressing the trunk onto the ground is a signal of temporary distress.

Pressing forehead to a pole
Pressing the forehead against an object is sometimes seen in elephants with long-term stress.

Stereotypic behaviour
Stereotypic behaviour, such as repeated swaying of the trunk or body, is a sign of serious problems. It shows the animal finds the situation impossible to adapt to.

In addition to studying intelligence, the science of animal cognition is increasingly improving our understanding of animal emotions. Elephants differ from other animals in two aspects. Their reaction to the death of other elephants is unique among animals, and they seem to experience more intense empathy than any other animal.

Attention to the dead

When elephants come across skulls, tusks and bones of other elephants, or an elephant carcass, they typically spend long times touching them. The reaction is especially strong when the remains belong to an individual they knew. Scientists do not yet know the full meaning of this behaviour. The demeanor of the elephants changes into focused and silent, indicating there is a marked change in their emotional state.


Empathy is an ability to recognize and share someone else's feelings. When elephants are living in a social group - either in the wild, or in a zoo or sanctuary setting in which they are allowed to interact naturally - they become visibly agitated when another elephant is in pain or distress. They also often show comforting behaviour by increasing the frequency of trunk and body touches to the distressed individual. In such situations, calves are also allowed to suckle even non-lactating females for comfort.

In general, elephants have been found to be very sensitive to the distress of other elephants. This may also mean that elephants suffer from others' suffering more than most other animals.

Targeted helping  

An interesting combination of empathy and intelligence is a behaviour known as targeted helping. This refers to assisting another animal in a way that is specifically suited to the situation at hand. Scientists have documented more field observations of targeted helping among elephants (especially African savannah elephants, the most frequently studied species) than in any other animal.

Elephants dislodge poachers' spears - and well-meaning veterinarians' tranquillizing darts - from each other. They push and pull calves that have fallen into ditches, and help each other to become unstuck from mud. Such help is usually given by females, but adult males have also been seen helping calves. There also are several documented cases when elephants have helped an unrelated individual from another group.

Sometimes help is extended to other species. There are rare accounts of elephants, including males, that have first broken into a kitchen and grabbed some food, but then heard a baby cry under the crushed wall, to which they have reacted by carefully removing the debris that covered the baby.

How to recognize distress signals

Basic emotions, such as joy and fear, have been found in all mammals and birds that have been studied. In that respect, elephants are likely to be similar to other animals.

Some captive elephants look as if they were indifferent to anything happening to them or others. This is usually due to a mental state called learned helplessness. The elephant has learned to avoid punishment by taking no action on its own initiative. However, equipping the elephant with a wearable heart rate monitor can still reveal surges of the pulse in frightening situations, giving a glimpse into the internal world.

In the photo on the upper left, a calf presses his trunk to the ground. In the photo on the left, a juvenile male leans his forehead against an object. Both are signals of distress. In the case of the juvenile, one of the likely reasons is the chain binding the forelegs to each other, preventing natural steps and tethering the elephant to the pole.

The female in the bottom photo on the left is performing stereotypic behaviour: swinging her trunk repeatedly from side to side for long periods at a time. Other stereotypic behaviours commonly seen in elephants include, among others, continuous stepping back and forth or bobbing of the head. Steretypic behaviour is a symptom that the animal finds it impossible to cope with its environment. In this case, one of the likely reasons is again the tethering with the chain that binds the forelegs to each other.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere