Both in the wild and in this captive study, researchers have watched other, nearby elephants react to the other elephant’s distress by acting in exactly the same way. Scientists call this emotional contagion.
The elephants also ran to stand beside their friend, touched her with their trunks to soothe her, and made soft chirping sounds. Sometimes one would even put her trunk inside the other’s mouth, a behavior elephants find particularly comforting, the researchers say.
We do something very similar when watching a scary movie with a friend. When the main character is threatened, we feel his fear. Our hearts race, we may tremble, and for reassurance, we reach for our friend’s hand.
The researchers also recorded what the elephants did when they were in the same locations with their same friends nearby, but nothing stressful occurred. In those moments, none of the elephants acted in an empathetic way.