A Massive Elephant Could Be More Empathetic Than a Human

Based on their social structure and brain size, elephants show a great deal of empathy. Is it more than humans express?

By Hazra Khatoon
Feb 9, 2024 2:00 PMFeb 12, 2024 8:47 PM
Elephant mother with young elephant
(Credit: albertodelgadolopez/Shutterstock)

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Researchers have commonly found that just like humans, elephants have a strong ability to show empathy. These massive animals can understand and share feelings with other elephants and even different animals.

Despite their intimidating size, elephants are emotionally intelligent and form deep familial bonds within their herd. Masson and McCarthy, in their book, "When Elephants Weep," described elephants clustered around a dying matriarch. They stroked her, and put food into her mouth, knowing she wasn't feeling well.

Other studies show elephants can recognize another’s emotional state and react to the emotions of their herd. So, how do elephants compare to how humans show empathy?

How are Elephants Empathetic?

Elephants are considered empathetic due to their complex brain structure and emotional capacity. The elephant's brain is one of the largest, weighing around 11 pounds. Their brains are found to have about 257 billion neurons, around three times more than a human brain. Structurally, the elephant brain has many similarities to the human brain.

“The cerebral cortex of an elephant has about one-third of the number of neurons compared to a human brain,” says Alex Van der Walt, B.Sc. in animal science and author at Animals Around The Globe. “The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for high-level processing such as memory, reasoning, thought, learning, decision-making, emotions, and intelligence.”

Whether or not elephants are more empathetic than humans comes down to opinion. According to Walt, she believes elephants are exposed to more death, struggles for survival, and dependence on the herd. Therefore, they arguably form deeper bonds with their herd members. As a result, when they experience the loss of a herd member, they could feel grief more greatly than we do.


Read More: Can Elephants Learn By Observing and Imitating Others?


How do Elephants Express Emotions?

For these feelings of loss and grief, they express the emotions in different ways. If one of the herd members is injured and cannot walk as fast as their usual pace, the rest of the herd will slow down to ensure they stay together.

Moreover, when an elephant gets stuck in mud or snare, herd members will try to pull them free. “The companions are made aware of the distressed calls of the stuck elephant, and the rest of the herd responds by coming to help,” Walt adds.

Elephants also mourn when they have lost a member of the herd. “They often show this behavior by lowering their head over the corpse while the herd remains silent,” Walt describes. “To show the grief, there are instances where the herd will touch the corpse with its trunk.”

Beyond grief, elephants are truly smart and social animals, and they show their feelings in many ways.

“Elephants can express their emotions through sounds, like trumpeting, and by moving their bodies in different ways,” says Ronald Oldfield, a senior instructor from the Case Western Reserve University Department of Biology. “When they touch each other gently with their trunks, it's like they're being kind and caring.”

Elephants also make different sounds and use their trunks to communicate. The “loudness, pitch, and frequency of these sounds can tell us how they are feeling,” says Oldfield. For example, a loud and high-pitched trumpet might mean an elephant is in pain. And “the leader elephant, called the matriarch, may nudge their young in the correct direction or help them up a steep bank.”


Read More: 5 of the World’s Most Intelligent Animals


Are Elephants More Empathetic Than Humans?

What has led elephants to become so empathetic and emotionally intelligent is their social nature. The social behavior and the intricate organization within the community provide benefits to animals living in certain environments such as forests.

When compared to humans, “some humans might be more empathetic than others, and it's likely the same for elephants,” Oldfield says. “However, proving that one species is generally more empathetic than another is really hard to do with an experiment.”

Animals, like elephants, live in different environments and react to things in ways we don't understand. “Also, animals rely on different senses, so it's hard to find a stimulus that both humans and animals react to the same way,” Oldfield concludes.


Read More: How Many Elephants Are Left In The World?

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