Sofia VILELA  – Sociality in Asian elephants: on the quest of empathy 

Jeudi 21 Décembre 2023
ETHICS, 14 boulevard Vauban, Lille

Sofia Vilela

Sofia VILELA is a doctoral student at Wildlife Research Center Kyoto University, Japan, studying the social behaviour of Asian elephants. Her research includes captive elephants in Japan and a free-ranging population in South India. She is particularly interested in empathy research and social dynamics.  


Elephants live in complex fission-fusion societies, provide extensive parental care and experimental studies suggest advanced cognitive abilities. Taken together, these factors make elephants, an interesting target to explore sociality. In group-living species, divergences in resources’ access, decisions or dominance may be reflected in the occurrence of social conflicts. These contexts can also provide an opportunity to explore expressions of empathy-related phenomena such as consolation. However, when examining the effects and social functions of conflict resolution strategies, it is important to take into account the internal states of the individuals such as anxiety levels. Self-directed behavior has widely been used for this purpose in non-human primates while studies on elephants are scarce and, to our knowledge, none has been conducted on Asian species. This study intends to further understanding on sociality in Asian elephants in captivity and free-ranging settings. Firstly, it is aimed to assess if self-directed behavior in captivity can be a suitable proxy for social anxiety. The second goal is to explore social decisions during post-conflict contexts by applying an adapted PC-MC methodology on third-party interactions with aggressor or victim. Finally, in free-ranging elephants, it is aimed to explore the relation between socio-ecological context, self-directed behavior and post-conflict behavior to address the functional character of specific social behaviors in order to examine empathy as causal explanation. 

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