Do Animals Find Things Funny?

The science of animals that laugh

Table of Contents

What is a monkey’s favorite dance move?

The banana split!

 

What makes you laugh? It could be a friend making a funny face at you or a joke you hear on your favorite show. Laughing can happen when we find something funny, but it can also happen when we are feeling nervous or anxious.

 

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine?” We know that laughter is not actually a medication, but it can be very good for us. After you laugh, you might feel relaxed or peaceful. That’s because when we laugh, our bodies respond positively. It can be a source of stress relief or even a distraction from pain. This is because laughter causes our brains to release endorphins, which are “feel-good” chemicals.

 

But there are other benefits to laughter that we can learn about from animals. That’s right—humans are not the only ones with a case of the giggles. Many different types of animals can laugh, too!

Which animals can laugh?

Apes are very similar to humans and share some of the same behaviors. One of these behaviors is laugh-like vocalizations. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos all laugh when they’re tickled. But their laughter does not sound exactly like ours. One of the main differences is that humans tend to laugh while we breathe out, while apes can laugh while breathing in.

orangutan mother and baby
orangutan mother and baby, Credit: flickr.com/Jordi Payà Canals is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Even though apes are more similar to humans than other species, it seems that laughter extends to all different types of animals, from the sky to the sea. Other animals that laugh include birds, dogs, rats, dolphins, and many more.

Why do animals laugh?

We know that apes, rats, and dolphins laugh when they’re tickled. But apes can also laugh when they’re playing together, like humans do. Sometimes apes even mimic each other’s laugh patterns. With apes, mimicking laughter does not necessarily mean that laughter is contagious. It can simply be a signal of connectedness.

Montenegro "Monty" at Dolphin Point
Montenegro 'Monty' at Dolphin Point", Credit: flickr.com/lolilujah is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Scientists think that laughter can help apes to bond, forming stronger relationships with each other. Animal bonding is beneficial for survival because it can cause individuals to spend more time together and support one another. One study by comparative psychologist Dr. Davila-Ross showed that apes who laughed with one another often spent more time together when playing. Humans behave similarly in social situations. If someone makes you laugh, you might want to spend more time with that person.

Animals also fight like humans do. Some scientists think that laughter could be an important tool that one animal uses to show another animal they are playing, rather than fighting. Have you ever observed dogs playing together? They sometimes play fight and whack each other or playfully bite each other. But what makes a play bite different from an angry bite? Dogs can use different vocalizations to show each other that they are either friendly or feeling threatened. shows that they are comfortable and happy, rather than scared or panicked. Hearing another dog’s play-pant or mimicking the noise can cause an anxious dog to relax. Just like humans and apes, this can help dogs to form a sense of connectedness to one another.

Dogs Hugging
Dogs Hugging, Credit: flickr.com/sonstroem is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Most of the time, scientists have found that animals laugh during situations of play or tickling. Humans laugh in many more situations than these. Although playing and tickling are common sources of laughter for people, we use laughter as a much more complicated signal. One common characteristic of human laughter is that humans often laugh in response to something unexpected. Jokes make us laugh because they are surprising. But we can also laugh when we’re feeling negative emotions, such as anxiety or nervousness. Laughter is not always a positive response in humans. It may be more complex, depending on the social situation. Animal laughter is much simpler than this, normally reserved for positive situations.

Do animals understand when we laugh?

Apes may understand and mimic each other’s laughter. But have you ever wondered what animals are thinking about you? What is your pet dog thinking about? While we know that animals can play and understand each other, it is hard to know whether they really understand humans. But some scientists think that dogs and other animals can sense human emotions. Dogs can understand when their owners are happy or sad. Like humans, dogs have a voice area in their brains. We may not know exactly what they are thinking, but we do know that their voice area helps them to process positive or negative sounds.

 

It is also possible that dogs understand human laughter. They may not understand the jokes we tell or , but they do understand when they have made a human feel positive emotions. In fact, scientists have found evidence that dogs repeat behaviors that cause their human companions to laugh in order to bond with their owners.

 

A lesson we can take away from animals is that laughter is a unifying force. From tickles to play fights, laughter can bring us closer together. Share this article with friends who make you laugh, and share a funny joke with them too!

smile.back
smile.back, Credit: flickr.com/oandresilva is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Glossary

Endorphins: feel-good chemicals from our brains that cause stress relief

 

Play-pant: a dog’s version of a laugh. Play-panting can help other dogs to relax and feel less anxiety.

 

Vocalization: a sound made by an animal using its voice

 

Voice area: a part of the brain that processes voices

Flesch Kincaid Score: 66.8

 

Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.1

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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Author

  • Tess Bub

    Tess Taggart Bub has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in data science from Houghton College. During her undergraduate studies, she conducted research in the areas of climate science, ecology, and muscle biology. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center studying host cellular response to viral infection. She is a strong believer that science can change the world, especially when it’s shared. In her free time, she loves communicating science, playing guitar and piano, and running. Writing for smore gives Tess the opportunity to help inspire a new generation of women in STEM.