Animals Laugh Too: UCLA Study Finds Laughter in 65 Species, from Rats to Cows

Every pet own­er knows that ani­mals love to play, but laugh­ter seems reserved for humans, a few apes, and maybe a few birds good at mim­ic­k­ing humans and apes. As it turns out, accord­ing to a new arti­cle pub­lished in the jour­nal Bioa­coustics, laugh­ter has been “doc­u­ment­ed in at least 65 species,” Jes­si­ca Wolf writes at UCLA News­room. “That list includes a vari­ety of pri­mates, domes­tic cows and dogs, fox­es, seals, and mon­goos­es, as well as three bird species, includ­ing para­keets and Aus­tralian mag­pies.” This is a far cry from just a few years ago when apes and rats were the “only known ani­mals to get the gig­gles,” as Liz Lan­g­ley wrote at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic in 2015.

Yes, rats laugh. How do sci­en­tists know this? They tick­le them, of course, as you can see in the video just above. (Rat tick­ling, it turns out, is good for the ani­mals’ well being.) The pur­pose of this exper­i­ment was to bet­ter under­stand human touch — and tick­ling, says study author Michael Brecht, “is one of the most poor­ly under­stood forms of touch.”

Laugh­ter, on the oth­er hand, seems some­what bet­ter under­stood, even among species sep­a­rat­ed from us by tens of mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion. In their recent arti­cle, UCLA pri­ma­tol­o­gist Sasha Win­kler and UCLA pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion Greg Bryant describe how “play vocal­iza­tions” sig­nal non-aggres­sion dur­ing rough­hous­ing. As Win­kler puts it:

When we laugh, we are often pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion to oth­ers that we are hav­ing fun and also invit­ing oth­ers to join. Some schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that this kind of vocal behav­ior is shared across many ani­mals who play, and as such, laugh­ter is our human ver­sion of an evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly old vocal play sig­nal.

Gen­er­al­ly, humans are unlike­ly to rec­og­nize ani­mal laugh­ter as such or even per­ceive it at all. “Our review indi­cates that vocal play sig­nals are usu­al­ly incon­spic­u­ous,” the authors write. Rats, for exam­ple, make “ultra­son­ic vocal­iza­tions” beyond the range of human hear­ing. The play vocal­iza­tions of chim­panzees, on the oth­er hand, are much more sim­i­lar to human laugh­ter, “although there are some dif­fer­ences,” Win­kler notes in an inter­view. “Like, they vocal­ize in both the in-breath and out breath.”

Why study ani­mal laugh­ter? Beyond the inher­ent inter­est of the top­ic — an espe­cial­ly joy­ful one for sci­en­tif­ic researchers — there’s the seri­ous busi­ness of under­stand­ing how “human social com­plex­i­ty allowed laugh­ter to evolve from a play-spe­cif­ic vocal­iza­tion into a sophis­ti­cat­ed prag­mat­ic sig­nal,” as Win­kler and Bryant write. We use laugh­ter to sig­nal all kinds of inten­tions, not all of them play­ful. But no mat­ter how many uses humans find for the vocal sig­nal, we can see in this new review arti­cle how deeply non-aggres­sive play is embed­ded through­out the ani­mal world and in our evo­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry. Read “Play vocal­i­sa­tions and human laugh­ter: a com­par­a­tive review” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Eye of the Pan­golin: The Search for an Ani­mal on the Edge 

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Doc­u­men­taries: Meet the Artists Who Cre­ate the Sounds of Fish, Spi­ders, Orang­utans, Mush­rooms & More

Down­load Ani­mals and Ethics 101: Think­ing Crit­i­cal­ly About Ani­mal Rights (Free)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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