Do elephants show empathy?

Richard W. Byrne, Phyllis C. Lee, Norah Njiraini, Joyce H. Poole, Katito Sayialel, Soila Sayialel, Lucy A. Bates, Cynthia J. Moss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Elephants show a rich social organization and display a number of unusual traits. In this paper, we analyse reports collected over a thirty-five year period, describing behaviour that has the potential to reveal signs of empathic understanding. These include coalition formation, the offering of protection and comfort to others, retrieving and 'babysitting' calves, aiding individuals that would otherwise have difficulty in moving, and removing foreign objects attached to others. These records demonstrate that an elephant is capable of diagnosing animacy and goal directedness, and is able to understand the physical competence, emotional state and intentions of others, when they differ from its own. We argue that an empathic understanding of others is the simplest explanation of these abilities, and discuss reasons why elephants appear to show empathy more than other non-primate species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)204-225
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Consciousness Studies
Issue number10-11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2008

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