40-Year Study Finds Elephants and Humans Are Remarkably Alike

Photo: Chester Zoo / cc

After four decades of research into the social behavior of pachyderms, biologists have arrived at a remarkable conclusion: they're really not so different from us. The results of the longest continual study of elephants found that some behaviors many people believe to be unique to humans, like casting flirtatious glances or arguing about directions, are in reality quite common among these species as well -- except they never forget to pack their trunks.According to a group of researchers who have been studying elephants for 40 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, communication amongst members of a herd is quite complex, bearing many similarities to a number of human tendencies and non-verbal cues. Close observations have reveal social relationships between elephants that is hardly a world apart from our own.

The results of the study, outlined in the new book The Amboseli Elephants, cite a number of elephant behaviors that most people could relate to -- such as a tendency for herds to 'debate' which direction to go before heading out on a trek. "It's wonderful to watch and a real process of negotiation," the book's co-editor, Phyllis Lee, tells the Daily Mail.

The study provides further evidence for elephants' capacity for empathy. They have long been known to display human traits such as grief, but the research shows they may also wince at each other's pain.

In one example, when a young elephant approached an electric fence, an older female 'looked alarmed, waiting for it to get zapped', said Cynthia Moss, who founded the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in 1972.

Miss Moss told New Scientist magazine: 'Her posture and blinking eyes showed she was wincing.'

And there are plenty of other analogous gestures. Not unlike two people greeting with a handshake, elephants will intertwine their trunks as a polite 'hello'; flirtatious individuals were observed casting apparently alluring side-glances to a prospective; and even young calves seem to suckle on their trunks much in the same way a human child might its thumb.

What makes such a conclusion that human and elephant behaviors quite similar in many ways isn't for the particular gestures or customs alone, but for the complex emotional processes at the root of them in humans and elephants alike -- so it's puzzling that, in many places around the world, we remain a real threat to them.

Throughout human history, superficial differences in culture and language were used to form faulty perceptions of superiority among peoples, but these are almost certainly not in line with all that we have in common. In light of such research which continues to suggest that the very essence of what makes us human isn't exclusively human, one can only wonder when other creatures, like elephants, will benefit from the full capacity of our humanity.

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