Remember how crows are way, way smarter than you? Elephants, as it turns out, are way, way more empathetic than you, too. For a long time, humans (being by far the most elitist of all the species) figured that we were the only ones who could experience empathy: the understanding that other individuals have feelings, and the ability to appreciate those feelings. Gradually, we've come to understand that great apes, dogs, and some corvids (crows and ravens) can display empathy as well. It's now time to add elephants to that list, as recent empirical evidence has shown that they understand when other elephants are in distress, and then provide comfort in the form of elephant hugs.
The concept behind empathy can be explained by what happens as you watch a scary movie: it's just a movie, and the scary stuff is happening to a character, not to you. In some sense, it's crazy that scary movies scare us at all, but the reason that they do is because we're able to empathize with the characters on the screen, even if they're not us. The same thing happens if a good friend is sad: you're not sad, but empathy can generate a sympathetic feeling of sadness that might be just as powerful as the real thing.
Researchers at Emory University observed a group of about 30 captive Asian elephants in Thailand. They tracked when elephants displayed a stress reaction (such as getting upset when other elephants outside their enclosure were calling to them) and then watched how other elephants reacted. Consistently, another elephant would run up to the distressed elephant and make physical contact, often putting their trunks in each other's mouths, the equivalent of an elephant hug. You can see this happening in the video below, although we'd recommend that if you want to show empathy for a distressed human, you might want to avoid trying to shove your fist into their mouth.
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