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Humor In Animals: The Species That Can Laugh

Anyone who has owned a pet understands that animals can have complex emotional lives. They feel sorrow, guilt, joy, and anger – and now scientists believe many animals even have a sense of humor. While researchers haven’t really studied giggling animals in the past, new studies hope to answer the question of whether or not animals can laugh.  

There are countless anecdotal stories of animals acting mischievously or appearing to double over with laughter, but is their data to back up these observations? There are many types of vocal responses that can be interpreted as animals laughing, though these phenomena are only observed in mammals and birds to date. The truth is, scientists don’t know much about the evolution of humor, but the little that is known suggests animals that laugh might be more common than anyone previously believed.  

Time will tell whether laughter is the result of evolution or is an inherent part of all life, but the implications of animal giggles are potentially huge. Humans may not be the only creatures on earth that can appreciate a good chuckle.

Dolphins are some of the most beloved animals on the planet, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re incredibly intelligent, and display emotional and intellectual skills that are unrivaled in the ocean. As for whether they use language, that’s still up in the air; they certainly emit many different calls that can be interpreted as words or messages, but it’s a difficult hypothesis to prove.

Marine researchers in Sweden have observed some of the best evidence to date of dolphin laughter, and they believe it has an important role in socialization. When engaging in play-fighting, dolphins emit a specific noise that seems to indicate their intentions as non-threatening. This only occurs during playful interactions and never during actual fights, leading researchers to believe that this sort of dolphin “chuckle” is meant to signal the roughhousing is all in good fun.

The kea is a species of parrot native to New Zealand that holds an impressive distinction: it might be the only non-mammal that makes its fellows laugh.

Keas are a playful species, even when they are alone, and scientists discovered that one of their calls has a unique emotional effect on the birds. They played a recording of a kea “laughing,” and saw that it caused other keas to respond and begin playing on their own or with nearby birds.

The fact that the warbling call evoked responses in solitary birds led researchers to rule out the possibility of it being an invitation to play. Their conclusion was that the sound put the birds in a good mood, impacting their emotions much like human laughter does.

The great apes are humans’ closest living relatives, and share a remarkable amount of similarities. Just like people chimpanzees and bonobos are ticklish. When tickled in places like the armpit, neck, or feet, these apes break out into fits of shallow panting that is believed to be their form of laughter.

Socialization and play are very important for these animals, especially bonobos, and laughter may help them discover their personal boundaries.

Like all apes, gorillas appear to be ticklish. They have been observed emitting laugh-like panting when engaging in play, but one gorilla in particular is of incredible note. Koko the gorilla has made headlines for her ability to communicate via sign language, although many skeptical scientists question how much she truly comprehends.

Some anecdotes suggest Koko is able to crack jokes, often to the frustration of her handlers. An experiment designed to test her ability to mimic movements failed when Koko began intentionally screwing up the moves. When the researcher would touch his nose, Koko would find amusement in pointing to completely different body parts. Her handler allegedly got frustrated and signed “bad gorilla”; Koko’s responded by signing “funny gorilla.”

Canines are very playful animals, and they employ a variety of sounds to indicate that they’re ready to have some fun. One of these sounds may even be a form of laughter.

Scientists ran a study in which certain sounds were played for a dog, including barks, growls, and panting, and the dog’s reactions were recorded. They discovered that dogs have their own version of laughter, a breathy exhale signifying the beginning of playtime. When the sound is played for a dog, it immediately attempts to instigate play with the source of the sound, whether the source is another dog or a human with a tape recorder. Just playing the sound can cause an immediate decrease in stress levels, a tactic that could potentially be used in high-stress environments like animal shelters.