UCLA Researchers Identify 65 Species Capable of “Laughing”

Considered one of the most natural impulses in human beings, laughter is both spontaneous and contagious. Babies exhibit the behavior before they can even talk or walk. It comes naturally to us, but we seldom associate it as a trait among animals. But in 2021, researchers at UCLA were able to identify 65 different animal species capable of making what are called “play vocalizations,” or what we humans think of as laughter.

smiling cow
Photo: Pixabay/R_Winkelmann

Laughing Cows, Not Hyenas

Some of those vocalizations we’ve been aware of for a while, like with apes, but others are far more surprising. In addition to a lengthy list of primates, animals such as domestic cows and dogs, seals, foxes, mongooses, and three bird species — including parakeets and Australian magpies — are now known to exhibit a form of laughter as well. While we’re used to seeing dogs and cats that look as if they’re smiling, laughter from them is a whole other thing.

smiling hyena
Photo: Pixabay/klimkin

Laughter in Animals

Sasha Winkler, a primatologist and UCLA anthropology graduate student, and UCLA professor of communication Gregory Bryant shared their fascinating findings in the journal Bioacoustics. The two explored various play vocalization sounds, recording them as noisy or tonal, loud or quiet, high- or low-pitched, short or long, a single call, or rhythmic pattern — seeking known features of play sounds.

dog smiling
Photo: Pixabay/KlausHausmann

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Researchers hope that studies like these and others can someday help humans better understand our own evolutionary characteristics. “This work lays out nicely how a phenomenon once thought to be particularly human turns out to be closely tied to behavior shared with species separated from humans by tens of millions of years,” Bryant explained.

Winkler added, “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.”

smiling lion cub
Photo: Pixabay/IanZA

Evolution of Laughter

While no one is quite sure how laughter in humans evolved, according to a press release by UCLA, “Paying attention to other species in this way sheds light on the form and function of human laughter and helps us to better understand the evolution of human social behavior.”

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