Monday, September 28, 2015

What Animals Contagiously Yawn?

Does this sight make you want to yawn?

A yawning Japanese macaque by Daisuke Tashiro at Wikimedia Commons.
Do you think it would make other animals want to yawn? Many animals yawn spontaneously, but yawning in response to sensing or thinking about someone else doing it may be a completely different thing. Contagious yawning requires a sense of social connection and emotional empathy that not all species share. So far, scientists have found experimental evidence of contagious yawning in humans, chimpanzees, domestic dogs (who interestingly yawn when people yawn, but not when other dogs do), and an abnormally yawny genetic line of rats. However, there have also been reports of bonobos, baboons, wolves, and budgerigars (small social parrots, also called budgies or parakeets) yawning contagiously in the wild, so this phenomenon may be more widespread than previously thought.

Andrew Gallup, Lexington Swartwood, Janine Militello and Serena Sackett from the State University of New York at Oneonta set out to experimentally test if budgerigars do in fact yawn contagiously. In one experiment, the researchers placed pairs of birds in separate adjacent cages with perches facing one another. They video recorded the birds both with an opaque barrier between them and without the opaque barrier. The researchers found that when the birds could see one another they were three times more likely to yawn within 5 minutes of the other bird yawning, although there was no difference in the overall number of spontaneous yawns.

Images of a yawning budgie from Gallup et al., 2015.
Next, the researchers decided to test if budgerigars contagiously yawn in response to videos of another budgerigar yawning. They played 10-minute videos of either yawning or non-yawning budgerigars on a laptop facing the birdcage. And who would have guessed that the budgies yawned twice as much in response to the yawning video than to the non-yawning video, showing that even our pet birds can get something out of watching TV!

Budgerigars are now the first non-mammalian species to display contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is not just interesting in itself, but it may also indicate a sense of empathy. Although we often limit our thinking of empathy to our own species, it makes sense to find empathetic behavior among social species like budgerigars. Now if we could just find more of it amongst our own species…

Want to know more? Check this out:

Gallup, A., Swartwood, L., Militello, J., & Sackett, S. (2015). Experimental evidence of contagious yawning in budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) Animal Cognition, 18 (5), 1051-1058 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-015-0873-1

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